For This School District, the Cafeteria Menu is Anything but Ordinary

Lunch featuring FFA raised pork and vegetables. ( Roger King )

Mushy steamed veggies and mystery meat are a thing of the past at the Holmen School District in Holmen, Wisc. In part because times and nutritional standards have changed, but mainly because the students in the high school’s FFA program play a huge part in supplying the proteins, vegetables and fruits to the district’s cafeterias in its Farm-2-School movement.

What began in 2008 as an FFA student’s capstone project to grow hydroponic lettuce has exploded into acres of fresh fruits and vegetables, a 75-tree apple orchard and a pork, beef and poultry operation.

“We decided we’d grow some vegetables and bedding plants, but we can’t compete with Walmart [for distribution], so we thought, ‘No one is growing food for the school lunch program. Let’s start there.’ And it’s been just awesome after that,” says Roger King, FFA advisor and Agriscience teacher at Holmen High School.

On the protein side, the students began by raising chickens, then added hogs, lamb and in 2018, beef cattle, spanning the gamut of animals typically raised for consumption.

Specifically for pork production, the students partner with a local family to keep the hogs in a barn off school property, where they have the opportunity to learn what it takes to feed and grow hogs for eventual processing.

“As an ag instructor I’m looking at this as educational. Here’s an SAE [Supervised Agricultural Experience] project as the student’s involvement in the program, so we get that development which is phenomenal,” King says. “We had to find a local grower that could sell us hogs, because the family we work with finishes hogs but isn’t breeding them. So, we worked with a local producer and at that point it took off. We have about 15-18 hogs per year that go into our school lunch program.”

The menu board at the high school denoting which items were produced by the FFA. (Roger King)

As the hogs head to the processing plant, that’s where Mike Gasper, nutrition services supervisor for the School District of Holmen, comes in. It’s one thing to raise the hog, but as it’s being processed, it has to meet certain requirements before it can be served in the schools.

“The protein that we serve has to be processed in a state-inspected or USDA-inspected facility. The first task for us was to find a place that could do that, and then getting the animals to the facility was relatively easy,” Gasper says. “It was getting the meat back that was more of a challenge. For example, we can’t throw a bunch of frozen chicken into the back of a pickup truck and haul it back.”

The next task was to coordinate with the distributors that the district uses to see whether or not they could carry the products. It turned out that they couldn’t, unless the school district carried insurance for it, or the distributor owned the product.

That hurdle alone might be enough for some to abandon the idea of serving back to the students. But Gasper persisted.

“We didn’t have the insurance to cover the product if something happened, but we discovered a local cooperative that exists to aggregate farmer’s products and get them to the marketplace, and they carry the insurance for the farmers so they can sell to distributors,” Gasper says. “We became a producing member of that co-op, so we could sell our product to our distributors, who could then sell it back to us to use.”

Getting creative to go the extra step was vital, Gasper notes.

“The worst thing that could happen is that we’d do something that would put the food at risk, and then a bunch of kids get sick. So, we’re very particular about making sure it’s very safe from start to finish, from processing to cooking procedures for the raw meat and produce,” he says.

But it’s well worth it. The Holmen School District has one of the highest school lunch participation rates in the state—with data to back it up. When Gasper began in 2008, they’d go through about 10 pounds of vegetables per day at the high school. Today, it ranges from 110-120 pounds of vegetables a day at the high school alone.

“We believe in the partnership with our FFA students and we work hard to cultivate that. And what’s happened, is that our participation goes up. The students are eager to try the pork, or squash or watermelon, whatever is featured, that their classmates have raised,” he notes. “A lot of it, with the produce, has to do with the freshness of the vegetables and the variety. It’s not corn every day. We’re serving things like brussels sprouts and squash, and oven roasting them. It’s not just steamed veggies.”

Offering that variety carries through on the protein side as well. The Holmen School District serves pork chops and barbecue ribs, uses Italian sausage in all kinds of things from spaghetti sauce to lasagna to topping on pizza, and even features an herbed pork roast for special occasions.

“For our Christmas meal, we served an herb-crusted pork loin that was actually chef-carved on all of the lines in all of our schools. Even at the elementary school,” Gasper said.

Another promotion of the FFA grown food.
Another promotion of the FFA grown food.

And it’s not just the students and parents taking notice. In the 2019 Best of La Crosse County Competition, Holmen School Nutrition Services was voted Best Farm-To-Table in the Places to Eat category, beating out many local restaurants doing the same thing, Gasper says.

Not only that, but King hears from people across the country who are inspired to start programs of their own after hearing about what’s going on at Holmen.  

“I get emails from people who say they’ve heard about what we’re doing and they’re going to start programs at their school after talking to their nutrition director. There’s a school in Tennessee that’s just elated they’re about to start,” he says. “That’s what it should be about. It’s nothing that novel, but you want to be reassured that it’s not that difficult to do.”

It’s an opportunity for local producers as well – whether it’s because they know a teacher, someone connected to the school district, or students. “It’s a chance for the producers to say, ‘Here’s a local opportunity for us to get the message of agriculture back to our schools,’” King continues.

In the future, sustaining the program is one of King’s biggest hopes.

“We want to continue to reach out to local producers and FFA members and ask them to continue to raise and produce food that the students can value,” he says. “We as agriculturists, fail to believe that what we produce could be consumed by our neighbors, so to speak. We think that everything is miles away from us, and it’s really not. It’s in our backyard. How do you not produce something quality for your neighbor?”

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