Zucchini everywhere: School-grown produce teaches students to eat their veggies

Grady Christopher gives locally grown produce a mixed review.
Holdingford sophomore Grady Christopher, right, gives locally grown produce a mixed review. "I like the pickles," he said while eating lunch in the school cafeteria on Oct. 24, 2018.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

When students at Holdingford Public Schools grab their lunch trays and dig in, they might be eating food they helped grow and harvest.

And some of those foods are a new experience for their taste buds.

"Our kids eat eggplant, they eat squash. They eat a lot of cabbage," said the district's food service director, Melissa Anderson.

Melissa Anderson shows locally grown produce.
Holdingford school district food service director Melissa Anderson shows locally grown produce stored in the school's walk-in cooler.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

If the students hadn't been helping to plant and grow some of those vegetables, Anderson said, she's not certain they would have shown up on their cafeteria trays.

"Those are some things that if we weren't growing it ourselves, I don't know that we would have even ventured into purchasing it, to see if they would even try it. The kids are eating things we didn't think they would eat."

And that adventure has made an impression on Holdingford's students. High school freshman Brad Krebsbach said he's learning to like new foods, like eggplant.

"Most the stuff they grow, I like it. It just has a different taste," he said. "You can tell when something is processed that the school buys, between that and like the organic stuff they grow. It's very nice."

Brad Krebsbach eats lunch in the school cafeteria.
Holdingford ninth-grader Brad Krebsbach eats lunch in the school cafeteria.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Holdingford started a garden in 2012 and later added a greenhouse. It's one of only a few schools in the state that grows its own produce for its lunches — and Anderson said while the locally grown food isn't a big money saver, it has increased healthy food choices for students and increased student interest in where the food they eat comes from.

But before the district's 1,100 kindergarteners through high school seniors can try new foods, its cooks are learning how to use the new abundance of fresh produce.

"You have to know what you would possibly do with the items, and then have a little adventurous spirit to have to go ahead and try things," Anderson said.

Step inside the school's walk-in cooler and the bounty is evident: among the boxes of purchased food products are a couple dozen five-gallon pails of homemade pickles, boxes of cabbage — and loads of zucchini. The school has used a lot of zucchini this year.

"[We] put it in soups ... muffins ... we throw a little in scalloped potatoes," Anderson smiled. "They can find zucchini everywhere."

Holdingford schools stores boxes of cabbage, celery and zucchini.
Holdingford schools store boxes of cabbage, celery and zucchini in the walk-in freezer.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Anderson hopes to expand local school lunch offerings beyond the abundant zucchini and pickles and cabbage. She's working on a project to have students who are members of FFA and live on farms raise beef or hogs for the school.

Growing their own food, Anderson said, doesn't save the school money — or increase its costs. In the end, it comes out even: Processing the garden-grown food adds labor costs, which are offset by savings in the school's food-purchasing budget.

Minnesota's Department of Education doesn't track how many schools grow their own food, but a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey in 2015 found that 47 percent of Minnesota schools have some kind of farm-to-school program to include local food on the menu. Only five schools reported growing their own food.

Wadena Deer Creek schools use two greenhouses to grow vegetables.
Wadena Deer Creek schools use two greenhouses to grow vegetables used in the school lunch program.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Few have taken the idea as far as Wadena-Deer Creek Public Schools.

The central Minnesota school has a high hoop greenhouse that extends the growing season by at least a month in spring and fall, and a deep winter greenhouse that grows lettuce, kale, radishes and other cool-weather crops all winter.

Caroline Venis and Sandie Rentz share a laugh in the greenhouse.
Greenhouse coordinator Caroline Venis and food services director Sandie Rentz share a laugh in the greenhouse at Wadena Deer Creek schools.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Caroline Venis runs the greenhouses. This time of year, she's pulling up tomato plants, still covered in red and green fruit, to make room for lettuce.

In the summer, she supervises a program for students who grow vegetables outside in garden plots. A large part of her job is sparking students' interest in growing and eating fresh food.

Wadena Deer Creek superintendent Lee Westrum.
Wadena Deer Creek Superintendent Lee Westrum.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

"Once they start growing, it was great. The weeding and the watering was not so fun," she said. "But this year I want to try one of those giant pumpkins to see if I can get the kids interested in going, 'Wow, I could grow that.'"

And that is exactly why the school invests in its gardens and greenhouses, said Superintendent Lee Westrum.

"It's not a money-saving effort for us," he said. "I see it I see that major benefit as being educational."

Westrum said he sees long-term benefits in teaching students to eat healthier food, and in stoking an interest in growing their own food.

Students take pride in helping grow the food, said Sandie Rentz, the district's food services director.

Wadena Deer Creek makes pickles with cucumbers grown in the greenhouse.
Wadena Deer Creek makes pickles with cucumbers grown in the greenhouse next door to the school. Students help care for and harvest the produce.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

"If we have fresh carrots from the garden, they go way faster than the processed ones," she said. "The processed ones are a nice, even size, but the taste isn't there, and the kids know the difference."

In the USDA's farm-to-school survey, several schools noted prohibitive cost as a reason for not growing food on site. But Westrum said that his district has found creative ways to fund their local food efforts

Both of the greenhouses on school grounds were paid for by grants. And Caroline Venis pays for seeds by operating a summer vegetable stand at the school, selling some of the produce the students help grow.

"I would tell districts [that] if you can find the money to get to get it going and give quality people in place, I think it can be really beneficial for your school your kids and your community," Westrum said.