- Associated Press - Sunday, March 9, 2014

CHAMBERLAIN, S.D. (AP) - Immediately, the difference was obvious.

“Everything tastes better, because it’s fresh. It’s picked and delivered the same day. Nutrition-wise, we’re getting as fresh as we can,” said Mike Renbarger, the food service manager at St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain. “There aren’t too many places in central South Dakota to buy fresh produce like that.”

When Mark Werner of Muddy Pumpkins Farms in nearby Oacoma contacted Renbarger several years ago and asked whether the farm could become one of the school’s food suppliers, the two struck a deal that put them on South Dakota’s leading edge of a national initiative.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School Program seeks to identify how much food school districts buy from local small farmers and increase the amount. The most recent numbers are from a USDA census in the 2011-2012 school year. It showed that nationally, schools spent more than $354 million on locally grown and raised food, 14 percent of their $2.5 billion total food expenditures.

However, South Dakota lagged. The survey showed schools in the state spent about $2.7 million on food, but only $137,419 was directed to local producers, about 5 percent.

But school officials are interested in making greater use of locally produced food. Renbarger’s review of the quality produce St. Joseph’s gets from Muddy Pumpkins Farms is indicative of what schools hope to gain.

This year, the USDA awarded 71 Farm to School grants in 42 states. In South Dakota, the Wolsey-Wessington School District is the only one with a grant. It will use that $21,631 to investigate opportunities to buy food locally and develop a plan to do so. Typically, such federal grant money is passed through the states. Because South Dakota didn’t have such a program, Wolsey-Wessington applied directly to the USDA.

Caroline McGillvrey, a teacher and technology coordinator, wrote the grant.

“Our goals are to assess our needs and examine our infrastructure to see if we can support an effective Farm to School Program,” she said.

The district wants to form relationships with at least six local producers. Already, four have shown interest: Dimock Dairy Co-op, Huron Custom Meats, Casavan’s Apiaries and Dakota Style. It makes potato chips and processes sunflower seeds. McGillvrey expects to reach the goal of six.

Tina Roth of Dimock Dairy Co-op said “we are very interested in promoting healthy eating and getting our product out there.” From the cheese manufacturer’s perspective, to work with the school district “all they have to do is get their orders to us in a timely fashion,” Roth said. “We have a van route in that area. It would not be out of our way to get cheese to them.”

Having an opportunity to buy local cheese, meat, honey and sunflower seeds that already have been processed would enable Wolsey-Wessington to overcome a common challenge districts face. Many school kitchens are not equipped or staffed to do food preparation.

“If you have squash, it’s kind of challenging from a school’s perspective to take 100 different squash and cut them up. It’s incredibly time consumingg. It’s a lot easier to deal with something that is already diced, frozen and all you have to do is heat it up,” Alison Kiesz said.

She’s an agriculture development representative with the state Department of Agriculture and promotes locally produced food in schools.

This is where the planning grant will prove its worth, Kelly Wagner figures. She has been hired by the Wolsey-Wessington school district to oversee the development of its potential Farm to School program.

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