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School cafeterias may switch to locally grown foods

Arlene Jones of Sprout, LLC, a foods distribution company in Brainerd, speaks to local school officials about the possibility of bringing local foods to area cafeterias. Photo by Zach Kayser, Pioneer Journal

During lunchtime, kids at area schools may soon be eating food grown on nearby farms.

That's because school officials have met with Arlene Jones, owner of foods distribution company Sprout, LLC. Jones, who also owns her own farm, "The Farm on St. Mathias," visited Wadena on Feb. 22 to meet with both the food service supervisor and school nurse from Sebeka Schools, as well as the dean of M State, to discuss the possibility of bringing food from local farms to serve on campus.

The project would involve either an expansion of Sprout to cover the Wadena area or the formation of a similar local organization.

Although invited representatives from Wadena-Deer Creek schools and Tri-County Health Care did not attend, Jones arranged a follow-up meeting with the area "buying group," made up of school lunch officials from area schools like WDC, Sebeka and Park Rapids, who coordinate their food orders with one another.

The meeting was organized by Mark Hanson of West Central Economic Development Alliance, who is excited about the potential to bring fresh produce to local cafeterias.

"We have definitely talked about this in the past, but now we're looking at actually some action," Hanson said.

During the discussion, Jones spoke of the advantages locally sourced foods have over food that is transported to the area, including fresher taste and higher nutritional content.

Although she talked optimistically about the possibilities of getting food from small area farmers, Jones also brought up current limitations. She said none of the farmers she bought from were certified organic, but they were still conscientious about the quality of the food they produced.

She also said all of her farmers were members of the Sustainable Farming Association, adding that none of them used genetically modified plants.

Although Sprout is based near Brainerd, Jones said several of the farms from which she buys produce to distribute are located in the Wadena area.

For example, Kathy Connell owns Redfern Gardens, a small market garden near Sebeka, which she said still produces a "huge" amount of food. Connell also said she liked the business relationship between her farm and Sprout, but would enjoy seeing a distribution company operate specifically in the Wadena area.

WDC may soon get a source of food as local as its own backyard. WDC Middle/High School Principal Tyler Church described a building project in the works that, when completed, would see either a greenhouse or high tunnel on campus that would possibly tie into a future curriculum. Church said the construction is already funded with help from the local Elks Lodge.

"Now it's just a matter of what kind of greenhouse we're going to put in place," Church said.