Ms. Richert's North Winn Pre-K. (Submitted photo)
Ms. Richert's North Winn Pre-K. (Submitted photo)
Throughout October, students in Decorah and North Winneshiek Schools are getting a taste of locally produced food thanks to farm-to-school initiatives supported by the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative.

Over the past three years, schools in Northeast Iowa have partnered with the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative to celebrate Home Grown School Lunch Week, an event that honors local food and farms. This year, FFI, Decorah and North Winneshiek Schools have stepped up the celebration, extending it through October to observe the National Farm to School Month.

National Farm to School Month began last year, as part of a national effort to improve child nutrition, support local economies and educate children about the origin of their food. It's a month where the focus is on eating local foods as part of school lunches along with conducting school-based activities to promote healthier eating. Local items are on the school lunch menu all month at Decorah and North Winneshiek school districts as well as at St. Benedict School.

Decorah Schools feature local items every week for Farm to School Month like apples from Peake Orchards and yogurt from Country View Dairy. Jane Bullerman, the food service director for the district, also brought cucumbers for cucumber salad and cantaloupe, both from State Line Organic Produce. Additional local items are indicated on the October lunch menu, including local sweet corn and tomatoes from the school garden.

Throughout the month, Megan Woodward, the FFI AmeriCorps volunteer for Decorah Schools, is working with Chad Elliot, culinary director for Decorah Schools, to do taste tests at John Cline and Carrie Lee Elementary schools.

Elliot says the benefits of farm-to-school are numerous.

"I think the connection between farm and school is important because it teaches our youth about where our food really comes from - the soil, not the store. The family garden has taken a back seat to the prepackaged convenience foods of today's supermarkets," he said. "This is why I get an absolute thrill to see our students rolling a wheelbarrow down the hallways of Decorah High School filled with fresh produce that they pick a few days a week. Anyone can see the results of a farm-to-school connection when we see our students come through the lunch line and look excited to eat the fresh veggies they have grown."

At North Winneshiek School, Barb Szabo, food service director at North Winneshiek, is also featuring local items throughout the month. Patchwork Green Farm provided the cabbage for coleslaw and all month long, Peake Orchards will supply North Winneshiek with apples. During the entire school year, North Winneshiek School features Country View Dairy yogurt for breakfast on days when cereal is served. Woodward will offer taste tests of various local foods as well as workwith fifth grade students to prepare local squash to be served at lunch. "It's so great to be able to support farmers in our area and in turn, feed high quality produce and yogurt to our students," said Szabo.

Woodward is a volunteer AmeriCorps service member working in both the Decorah and North Winneshiek district this year. Service members are provided by FFI to districts in the region who are interested in creating healthier environments for students and staff. Funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation supports this work along with the four core FFI partners, including the Luther College Center for Sustainable Communities, Iowa State Extension and Outreach, Upper Explorerland Regional Planning and Northeast Iowa Community College. Members serve as a resource for schools, building capacity to deepen engagement through nutrition education, creating active classrooms, increasing local food procurement, along with building and maintaining school gardens and natural outdoor playgrounds.

Parents can help show support for farm-to-school programs by encouraging their child to eat school lunch or by eating school lunch with their child when local items are on the menu. Parents can also bring the celebration home by purchasing local foods and cooking with their family throughout October, visiting local farms, or involving children in a garden project.

Farm-to-school programs promote healthy eating habits early in life and are one of many strategies to curb the skyrocketing national health crisis. Education about fresh, locally grown foods not only helps students develop healthier lifestyles, it also promotes the vitality of our communities. For every dollar spent on local foods in schools, one to three dollars circulate in the local economy. By promoting farm-to-school programs, we can create a substantial market for farmers, add value to our economy, and grow a new generation of Northeast Iowa Farmers.

Farm to School Month celebrations are one of many steps schools are taking to transform their environments into a healthy learning and workplace for students, staff and community members. For more information about Farm to School in Northeast Iowa or the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative, visit http://www.iowafoodandfitness.org/ or contact Megan Woodward at woodme01@luther.edu or 262-751-1899. For more information about the National Farm to School month, visit farmtoschoolmonth.org.