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Bemidji schools among growing trend of serving local foods

Deborah Dilley, community nutrition educator with the University of Minnesota Extension, right, talks about the benefits students, teachers and others have received from having a school garden at Solway Elementary School. On the left is Tami Wesely, principal at Solway Elementary School. Anne Williams | Bemidji Pioneer

Marleen Webb, food services coordinator for Bemidji School District, is excited for the growing season to come into full swing because it means students will again be receiving fresh and locally grown food.

This summer is the fourth year the school district will participate in the Farm to School program, an initiative supported by the University of Minnesota Extension that connects schools and students with food grown from nearby farms.

Last year the school district purchased a variety of produce, including strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, squash, potatoes, corn, herbs, radishes, beets and more, from eight to 12 different area growers, Webb said.

This year she anticipates working with as many or more growers.

"The growers have been tremendous to work with," Webb said. "Our relationships with them are growing. We're really enthused about it. It's a definite change for our kitchens to go back to made-from-scratch cooking rather than dealing with convenience foods."

The Farm to School initiative was highlighted in a documentary called "Farm to School: Growing Our Future," which was shown to employees from area school districts and universities, as well as local growers and members of the public on Tuesday afternoon at Bemidji High School.

Produced as a partnership among the University of Minnesota Extension, Minnesota Department of Health and Twin Cities Public Television and funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the 30-minute film illustrated how childhood obesity is one of the major health challenges of the 21st century.

One of the contributing factors of childhood obesity, according to the film, is the lack of fruits and vegetables in children's diets. This is one reason why Webb decided several years ago to find ways to put more fresh fruits and vegetables on students' plates.

But working within a tight school district budget forced Webb to look for other sources of funding in order make the Farm to School initiative a reality.

After applying for several grants, the school district received funding from the Statewide Health Improvement Program, which allowed it to purchase materials to install a vegetable garden outside of Solway Elementary School. Recently attained SHIP funding has also given the district the means to build several raised garden beds outside of Lincoln Elementary School that will be completed soon, Webb said.

In order to give students access to fresh, locally grown foods on a more regular basis, Webb partnered with Cheryl Krystosek, a local grower, who has been working for the past 18 months to connect Webb with local growers willing to sell their naturally grown produce to the school district.

Recently, the consortium of roughly 15 growers has registered an official name, or label, and will soon sell their foods under the brand name of Headwaters Foods.

Having local growers work together has made it easier for the district to purchase fresh foods, Webb said.

When she first introduced the Farm to School program to the district four years ago, she said it was difficult to know who the local growers were and to rely on certain growers to come up with enough of one product at a specific time.

"But then Cheryl came in and has just been a wealth of knowledge," Webb said. "She has provided the district with many local growers and a wide range of products."

Today, Krystosek not only works as a liaison between the school district and local growers, but also personally delivers all the food from the individual farms to schools in the district.

Gregory Oja, a local grower and member of Headwaters Foods, plans to sell his produce to the school district this summer and next fall.

He, along with grower Matt Roy, plan on selling their early produce, such as spinach, kale, radishes, beets, carrots and turnips, at the local farmer's market through June.

Beginning in July, Oja said, the growers plan to focus on selling their products only to the school district and local restaurants.

"It's a lot of work being at the farmer's market and picking produce and not knowing if you'll sell it all," Oja said.

But there are also challenges to selling to a client like a school district, Oja said, especially when it comes to scheduling the needs of the school district with Mother Nature.

"The biggest problem with Farm to School is having the coordination," Oja said. "There's only so much we can plant. We can't work on a short time frame because I can't go and pick a couple cases of cherry tomatoes in a couple hours to be able to deliver them to schools that morning. I need to know ahead of time what they want and when they want it."

These are the "kinks" Krystosek says she is still trying to work out between the growers and the school district.

But giving students the opportunity to eat fresh, locally grown foods is worth it, Webb said.

"I think keeping our money local really assists us in trying to maintain the economics here in the community," Webb said. "The products are really not that much more expensive than purchasing them through our vendors. The growers have been tremendous to work with."

The school district has also made efforts to add signage to locally grown foods in school, letting students know where the food was grown from, Webb said.

"The kids are excited about products coming from the area," she added. "They see that correlation between what is grown right here in area."


To view the documentary online, visit