Waconia School Cafeterias Serve Up Healthy, Local Food

Garden-fresh veggies—from the school district’s own garden—make the school lunches extra flavorful in Waconia.

Waconia students are getting a little fresh—thanks to a grant, a garden and a gastronomically inspired director of nutritional services. Barbara Schank uses her commitment to healthy, fresh cooking to entice about 4,000 Waconia School District 110 students to steer their food trays toward garden-fresh, locally grown, made-from-scratch menu options, which are served at the district’s five education sites.

That’s a tall order, given that the school provides breakfast for about 25 percent of its students, and nearly 84 percent of the kids buy school lunch or at least a snack item at lunchtime. For the last eight years, a ½-acre garden and a 60-tree orchard have produced a harvest that helps Schank and her staff prepare about 25 percent of the district’s food from scratch with those fresh ingredients and local food sources. “We’re always trying to increase that,” she says of the figures, saying that it requires students to “buy into the value of eating homemade” products.

“Buying in” often means having a vested interest, and district students are digging, literally, into their school meals by helping in the garden. “Kids are willing to put effort into something that they’ll benefit from down the road,” Schank says.

Each middle school class is charged with seed planting, growing the start-up plants under classroom grow lights and planting when the time is right. The garden is also tended by about 270 elementary school students who participate in the district’s summer enrichment program. Participants water, weed and oversee the crops. “They love it,” Schank says.

A cooking class is offered to teach the students how to transform the produce into their own culinary creations. “(The garden) helps students understand where food comes from and how it gets to their plate,” says student Linnea Jungwirth, 13. “We have also painted signs that are hung up around the garden that explain germination, the growing process and how pollination works.”
 
While the students enjoy their time in the garden, it takes serious forethought in determining crop rotation, planting schedules, weed and pest control and harvesting techniques. Mike and Colleen Klingelhutz, local farmers, serve as mentors.
 
Tracy LeTourneau and Craig Sharp, who owned Terra Waconia, are also involved. “We have been asked to review their menus and help develop new recipes and local sourcing for scratch cooking,” Sharp says. “We also hope to help build a bakery program that will supply the district with fresh baked goods, and we’ve begun research on a long-term vision to put aquaponics into the high school science curriculum, which will in turn supply the child nutrition program with fresh fish and produce.” The team is thinking about classes on topics like meat and hunting, food handling and broader environmental science.

With the garden and orchard harvests, there are plenty of recipe avenues to explore.  The orchard trees produce apples, apricots, cherries, pears and plums. The garden boasts the usual suspects, including yellow zucchini. Schank discovered kids don’t like “green flecks” in their zucchini bread, so she uses the yellow variety instead, freezing it so it lasts throughout the colder months. Beets, (yes, beets), cabbage and carrots are used for a “beautiful red soup that our students really, really love,” she says. Cucumbers, peppers and onions marry for gallons of refrigerator pickles, and tomatoes and jalapenos create the school’s salsa. The herb garden (basil, cilantro, dill, sage and thyme) allow the cooks to add a little homegrown flavor to cafeteria favorites, including hummus served with rainbow carrot chips.

Many of the garden yields offer the perfect accoutrements for pasta. Thanks to a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture in conjunction with the state’s USDA and Blue Cross Blue Shield, the district can make fresh pasta with an Italian-made pasta machine, purchased through the grant. “It’s huge,” Schank says. “It’s beautiful.”
 
To further embrace the farm to table concept, Schank hopes to use locally-produced flour, eggs, cheese and butternut squash for handmade ravioli. “We’re getting so much better at (fresher cooking) as we develop recipes,” she says. “(Students) come through the line and see all the fun choices, and it just becomes normal, and I just love that.”

Sharp shares Schank’s passion for changing the way students approach food. “The idea that we could change the way the society interacts with food and farms is for me, the most important work of my career.  For decades the nation has gone the wrong direction with our health and nutrition… As I have worked with the Child Nutrition team and the other administrators in the school system, I have realized how fortunate Waconia is to have such deeply passionate people working for the health of our entire community.”