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Enterprise Journal

It is not your mama’s school lunch anymore... But don’t worry, chili day with cinnamon rolls is still on the menu!

Feb 19, 2021 10:56AM ● By Kara Trettin

According to Huebsch, funding and delivery are the two biggest barriers for the fresh foods program. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Last summer, Governor Kim Reynolds and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig announced a local food grant opportunity for Iowa schools, and Osage Community School District’s Food Service Director, Brenda Huebsch, took that opportunity and ran with it.

According to Huebsch, the State of Iowa announced the grant, which is associated with the CARES Act funding, in August 2020. She said she applied for the K-12 Osage lunch program and was approved for both the equipment and food grants.

“We got equipment to process all the local foods and started,” Huebsch said. “The hardest thing was trying to find [local growers].” 

With the assistance of Marie Boyd of Healthy Harvest of North Iowa, Huebsch was connected to local food hubs.

According to the Healthy Harvest of North Iowa website, the vision of the nonprofit organization is to is to be the resource for creating, developing, and supporting a community-based North Iowa regional food system.

Huebsch said she began to go to auctions and food hubs, such as the Cedar Valley auction in Elma and North Iowa Fresh in Clear Lake, as well as Iowa Food Hub in Decorah. “Then these guys [the school cooks] just started getting it and they started cooking it and the kids started liking it.”

Logan Martin, OCHS school board student representative, said the student food initiative has been a significant initiative over the years. He said students have always wanted fresher foods.

“When we started getting this fresh food and stuff, I could see a lot of kids more taking it and be like ‘well look what we got today.’ You know they were a lot more excited,” middle school student Mackenzie Brown said.


The OCSD cooks have not experienced much of a difference in how they prepare food at OCSD.

Brenda Cramer, middle school cook, said they work the fresh produce into the already scheduled meals for the week. “Maybe we got potatoes; we’ll do a baked potato bar; the leftover potatoes we make wedges with them. Peppers or fruit, we put out for the meals. And then we always have signs saying where they came from so the kids know they are local.”

Both the staff and the students believe the biggest impact of the fresh foods program is the significant increase of choices for students.

Huebsch said students can have as much fruits and vegetables as they want. She said they offer many of the additional fresh foods as an extra option for meals and snacks.

“We get watermelon and cantaloupe from auctions, plus would have fresh apples from the food hubs and we just had a lot more choices for fruits and vegetables,” Huebsch said, “we did get some sausages that we did into egg sandwiches for breakfast, we got yogurt and that was awesome. We did a lot of breakfast stuff with that for an extra choice; we have the main meal, and we try to have two alternative meals, plus salad and cereal over in devil’s diner, so really they have five choices.”

Elementary school cook Brittney Loftus said they offer a lot of the fresh fruit. “Some of the apples were a lot smaller so they [students] kind of thought it was fun to have their own full apple.”

  

Loftus said students are also eating more vegetables. 

“We just started Fearless Foods back up where [the students] try something new and they’ve really enjoyed that,” Loftus said. She said Huebsch launched Fearless Foods during the 2019-2020 school year that allows elementary students to taste test new foods every Friday.

Huebsch said that along with the taste test, students learn a few fun facts about the new food they are sampling.

Martin said his younger brother, an elementary student, is a picky eater but he expressed his liking for the fresh food additions. 
“I thought that was really interesting because they obviously did a really good job preparing the foods. Knowing that the kids liked it; it’s always hard to get younger kids to eat the vegetables and stuff and they did a good job.”

An additional option for elementary students, according to Loftus, allows students who bring a sack lunch to school to also get fruits, vegetables, and milk from the cafeteria, and for free.

“We are on the summer foods program, so that means it’s free to every student; lunch is free to every student this whole school year, so we get reimbursed for a lot of it so that helps too,” Huebsch said. 

“As long as you have the components on your tray, we can still charge them for a meal, which is way cheaper than buying a bag of chips and a Gatorade,” Huebsch said, “So we really try to educate the kids on that and what to get to make it a meal and especially now when it’s a free meal. If they come through and grab a salad or just a sandwich, we tell them to get a vegetable and fruit or something and you can get a reimbursed [meal] and it’ll be free.” 

Brown said she thinks parents are also happy about the fresh food program.  “Their students or their kids get the vegetables and stuff that they need and it’s free for them […] some fruits are on sale but kind of gets pricey and adds up but when you eat at school it’s all free.”

Another addition to the cafeteria offerings, is a grab-and-go option, Cramer said. “We just started the grab-and-go lunch. The grab-and-go breakfast is awesome.” She said they make up to 15 to 20 each day and they are always gone.

Cramer said the grab-and-go breakfast might have a sandwich and a juice. She said students can grab these quick meal options and go straight to class in the mornings, or those who are leaving campus for a college class can easily take the meal along.

Looking forward to next year, Huebsch said she recently met all the producers in the area that are part of the food hubs and she is hoping to enhance the program further.  However, she said, “it’s so hard to have a lot of local foods, price wise, and still try to stay inside of your budget. So, the grants and stuff are huge, huge, huge, huge, to help out so I’m going to look at some different options.”

According to Huebsch, funding and delivery are the two biggest barriers for the fresh foods program.

Huebsch said the closest food hub is in Clear Lake and delivery is only an option with orders of significant quantities.

For example, Huebsch said, “Once we had to buy like 50 watermelons and get it loaded on the truck and bring it here and unload it all.” She said for this instance delivery was not an option.

“For us just to get the stuff here was harder […] Steve from Twisted River in Mitchell, he brought a lot of our deliveries from Clear Lake and delivered for us so that helped out a lot,” Huebsch said.

According to Huebsch, the locally sourced fresh foods last longer than produce purchased from larger distributors. She said the travel time required with a large distributor shortens the shelf life once the produce is delivered to the school. “We got lettuce from up in Mitchell. A box fresh lettuce lasted for a long time, I can’t believe how long it lasted, I was impressed!”

Huebsch said this school year is a trial and error to see what works best for the OCSD. She said this year she attended the produce auctions about every other week as that would sustain the fresh food program for approximately two weeks.

OCSD is the only district in Mitchell County currently participating in the fresh food program. She said she believes in North Iowa only one Mason City school and the Garner school district are participating in the program.

According to Huebsch due to COVID, it is difficult to know the impact of the fresh foods program compared to a historically ‘normal’ school year and food program. “Hopefully, it catches on and we still get the numbers so it’s trying to make them aware […] hopefully we can continue doing it.”

Martin said, “It’s [fresh foods] has always been something that we’ve wanted and now that it’s here we enjoy it; hopefully, it’ll be back next year.”

Huebsch said she has plans for future additions to the OCSD food programs. She said she hopes to partner with the high school’s greenhouse to incorporate fresh herbs in the school meals and she also is researching possibilities for an afterschool snack shack for students.

“I just don’t think we should feed them [students] enough at lunch time to make it through practice. I just think that there should be another option and I know Forest City has a snack shack that I’m just going to get ahold of them and see how that all works,” Huebsch said.

Agreeing, Martin said, “I think that that’s a good idea. Most practices don’t get out till like 5:30 or 6:00 and you know that’s a long time to go without food.”

Although Martin said high school kids are hard to please, the variety of options with the fresh foods program provides something for everyone. The students and the cooks alike agreed the fresh foods program’s most impactful component is choice.

“It’s just kind of neat because we could think of new things to do with them [fresh produce] and that keeps it interesting instead it’s the same old, same old,” Cramer said.

“I think the biggest thing is the initiative. Brenda [Huebsch] went out and got the grant, she didn’t talk to anyone, she just went out and did it. Of course, the cooks in the kitchen prepare the food and its huge, Martin said, “I think it really shows that we have a lot of caring people in our school, especially in our kitchens and I think that is super important.”

Finally, at the mention of chili day with cinnamon rolls, Brown said, “people were bummed when they temporarily took it away, but it is back.”

So, for you elementary parents who like to join your child for chili day, mark your calendars!