Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Put your money in the can August 2, 2017

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THIS TIME OF YEAR in Minnesota, roadside stands pop up with a bounty of fresh garden produce. Some are staffed. Some are not.

 

 

On Sunday evening, Randy and I stopped at an unmanned stand along U.S. Highway 14 as we passed through Courtland (between New Ulm and Mankato) after a weekend in southwestern Minnesota. We needed potatoes and always appreciate newly-dug spuds.

 

 

Pickings were slim at that time of day. But we found a bag of potatoes for $2 that fit our needs. Randy pulled two bills from his wallet and deposited the money in a mammoth coffee can labeled PUT MONEY HERE.

I love this trustworthiness that exists in rural Minnesota.

 

 

But apparently the gardener doesn’t trust Mother Nature. Inside the coffee can, an over-sized stone weighted the container against the wind.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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A new spin on carrot cake, four-year-old style March 9, 2017

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WHEN MY GREAT NEPHEW Landon turned four last week, he asked for a carrot cake. What preschooler chooses that flavor of birthday cake? A kid who loves vegetables and, as far as I have observed, every food. I’ve even watched Landon eat an ear of raw sweetcorn just pulled from the stalk.

His mom, Amber, makes one delicious carrot cake. She bakes and cooks from scratch. No boxed mixes or convenience foods for her or her family. Or guests. Lucky me.

I could end this story here by singing praises about the carrot-cake-baking mom and the boy who loves carrot cake.

Landon, with help from his nearly two-year-old sister Evelyn, sticks raw carrots into his carrot cake. And, yes, he chose to wear a Halloween shirt at his birthday party. When you’re four, you can do that.

But Landon is Landon and he took this carrot cake thing a bit further. As Amber finished prepping his birthday meal of spaghetti and meatballs, Landon pulled a chair up to the kitchen counter. He then reached into a container of raw carrots, celery, radishes and peppers and pulled out the carrots. As we watched, Landon poked the carrots, like candles, into his birthday cake. How’s that for a veggie loving four-year-old?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The trend toward healthier foods in schools and the chocolate milk debate May 7, 2011

SHOULD PUBLIC SCHOOLS offer chocolate milk with school lunches?

That’s an issue being discussed right now in the Fergus Falls Public School system, according to an article published in the Fergus Falls Journal.

The head of the Parent Teacher Organization appeared before the school board recently requesting that chocolate milk no longer be offered to students, except on Fridays as a “special treat.” She’s concerned about the sugar in chocolate milk and about serving healthier food. You can read the entire story by clicking here.

Based on the volume of responses to the Journal article, I quickly concluded that chocolate milk in school is certainly a hot button topic.

Opinions range from “let the kids have their chocolate milk because then at least they are drinking milk” to school lunches need an overhaul to this is a political issue.

Personally, I’ll pick white milk over chocolate any day. I grew up on a dairy farm, meaning I can’t really give an unbiased opinion here. Cows don’t produce chocolate milk. To my taste buds, chocolate milk compares to chugging chocolate syrup and I prefer my chocolate syrup on ice cream.

Here’s my take on banning chocolate milk from school lunchrooms:  Kids will eventually learn to drink white milk if they don’t have the chocolate option.

I think the PTO president erred with her compromise offer to allow chocolate milk as a “special treat” on Fridays. That would send a mixed message to students. Labeling a food as a “treat” only makes it more appealing.

This chocolate milk discussion reminds me of a controversy over soda pop vending machines in schools several years ago. I don’t recall the details, but it was a point of much debate in my community of Faribault. I don’t know how the issue was eventually resolved. And, honestly, because my kids are big milk, and not big soda, drinkers, I really did not pay that much attention to the issue. I should have.

Whether milk or soda is at the center of discussion, it’s good that parents, food service employees, school administrators and others are finally taking a good look at school lunches and working toward serving healthier foods and beverages to our kids.

In Fergus Falls, a Wellness Committee is tackling the topic of improving school lunches. Click here and here for the May school lunch menus in Fergus Falls. You’ll find main menu items like chicken nuggets, hot dogs, corn dogs and super nachos along with baked (not fried) fries, sunflower nuts, fresh fruit and fresh veggies. I can see progress in that list, but still some of those food choices don’t seem all that healthy to me.

And just to be clear here, I’m neither a food purist nor a perfect parent. I’ve served chicken nuggets to my family and I would label my 17-year-old son, my youngest, as a “picky eater.” It’s not that I haven’t tried to get him to eat his fruits and vegetables…

Fergus Falls certainly isn’t alone in moving toward healthier school lunches that feature fewer processed foods and more fresh veggies and fruit.

Throughout Minnesota, students, staff and volunteers are planting gardens, a win-win way to engage and teach students about healthier eating. The gardens will also provide fresh vegetables for school lunchrooms. The Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) is helping lead the way. You can click here to see what’s happening in your county through SHIP.

In my county, Rice, for example, a “Growing Healthy Foods” workshop is slated for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 11, in the 4-H building at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Master gardeners will present information about gardening in this program funded through a SHIP grant.

While individuals and students are planting gardens, Minnesota schools are also working with local growers to incorporate fresh produce into school lunches.

Check out the Minnesota Farm to School Program to see how some schools are embracing the trend toward eating local. It’s inspiring to read about apple orchards and tomatoes and school gardens and efforts to educate and reconnect students to the land.

I expect, though, that despite efforts to improve the quality of food in school lunchrooms, cost will determine whether healthy, permanent changes can be made. School districts don’t exactly have extra money in their budgets. And parents, in a time of already stretched family finances, won’t appreciate/can’t afford hikes in school lunch prices.

Getting kids to change their eating habits presents a major challenge also.

What’s your opinion on the current trend toward serving healthier foods in schools? Are changes needed? Will kids embrace such changes? Can school districts afford to offer healthier foods (which will likely cost more to buy and to prepare)? Will parents pay higher prices for school lunches?

And, finally, how do you feel about pulling chocolate milk from school lunchrooms?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Tasteless strawberries and wilting lettuce March 10, 2011

I LOVE FRUITS AND VEGETABLES.

But I don’t always love the quality of the fruits and vegetables I find in the grocery store. In my opinion, they are often sub-par.

Because I live in Minnesota, I am not all that educated about fresh fruits and vegetables. Our cold climate and short growing season limit our native selections. We rely on “imports” from Florida and California and other much warmer places.

That said, I have no idea when growers pick oranges or strawberries or fill in the blank here. How mature, or immature, is the fruit?

Are oranges, like bananas, harvested when they are green? How about strawberries? Muskmelon? Is all fruit plucked before it’s ripened?

I raise that question because I bought a pound of Florida strawberries the other day that looked oddly, unnaturally overripe. Yet, I didn’t see any telltale mold. My husband theorized that they were “picked green and gassed.”

Is fruit really “gassed,” and what does that mean?

 

A few of the Florida strawberries from the pound I purchased.

The strawberries were rather tasteless, but added a jolt of color to my lettuce salad. If you live in Minnesota or any other cold climate, you’ll understand the need for a jolt of color this time of year. (It’s been a long, cold and snowy winter.)

That brings me to the lettuce. I doled out $2.99 for a bunch of Romaine lettuce at the same time I bought the strawberries. Normally I would pass on Romaine priced so exorbitantly high or even consider substituting iceberg lettuce (which I quit buying years ago because I prefer whole wheat to Wonder bread).

I was willing, though, to pay the $3. I wanted, needed, a Romaine salad. Unfortunately, the selection was not good. Small bunches. Wilted leaves and leaves edged with black. I chose the best and hoped I wasn’t throwing away my money.

 

I had already peeled off several layers of lettuce leaves before I took this photo. What are those brownish spots?

Well, I threw away about three salads worth of lettuce as I peeled off the layers of leaves to reveal what I term “rust.” I have no idea what the brown spots are inside lettuce leaves, nor do I know why leaves are sometimes tipped with black. I just know that I can’t eat it.

This frustrates me.

How many times have you purchased bad lettuce or fresh fruit that ends up in the garbage? I bet you’ve all tasted “baseball” hard peaches or pears and nectarines that never ripen and are as crunchy and dry as cardboard. One bite and in the trash they go.

So why are fruits and vegetables like this?

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS on the quality of today’s fresh fruits and vegetables? I’d like to hear your insights and your experiences.

 

Sliced strawberries, cucumbers and Amablu Gorgonzola cheese added to Romaine lettuce made a perfect salad. I topped the salad with lemon poppyseed dressing.

FYI: Amablu Gorgonzola cheese is made at Faribault Dairy in Faribault, Minnesota, where it is aged in sandstone caves along the Straight River. This is home to America’s first blue cheese plant, dating back to 1936. The award-winning cheeses produced in my community are among my favorite cheeses.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

How some Minnesota schools are serving healthier meals September 14, 2010

DECADES AGO when my relatives from the Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul, for you non-Minnesotans), visited my southwestern Minnesota childhood farm, they would scoop up fresh garden produce by the bags full to take home. We didn’t mind, if we had extras, and were happy to share the bounty of the land.

I’ll admit, though, that even back then I felt a bit smug about our ability as farmers to provide food for the city dwellers. They had small gardens, but certainly could not grow what we could on our acres and acres of soil.

Today, as a city dweller, I’m the one carting home fresh garden produce from the country. No longer smug, I humbly accept the eggplant, tomatoes, spinach, cucumbers, okra, green beans, zucchini and other fruits and veggies that my country-dwelling family and friends share. I could live on fresh vegetables; I love them that much. But in my scrunched yard, I have room only for growing tomatoes and lettuce.

Some of the garden-fresh vegetables I got from my brother a few days ago.

Eating local, eating fresh, seems the healthy, trendy thing to do these days.

So when I read in the September 9 issue of The Gaylord Hub (a weekly newspaper where I worked in the 1970s) that students at the Sibley East, Arlington campus, will eat garden-fresh vegetables in their lunches this year, I took note.

According to the article, last spring students and staff planted a one-acre vegetable garden, which has produced beans, potatoes, cucumbers, onions, cabbage and squash. Later the garden will yield pumpkins, carrots and kale. Food service staff has been busy freezing the beans and making salsa and refrigerator pickles. The other vegetables will be incorporated fresh into meals.

Four grants are helping to fund the Farm to School Program project, which is more labor intensive and costly than a regular school food service offering.

Some Minnesota schools are growing onions in gardens.

Sibley East students grew cabbage, which will be made into coleslaw.

I don’t know if I’ve had my head in the refrigerator or what, but I don’t recall hearing about the Farm to School Program, which has been around nationally since the late 1990s and began in Minnesota in 2005.

Today a check of the Farm to School Program Web site reveals that an “estimated 69” Farm to School programs exist in Minnesota. (Sixty-nine doesn’t sound like an estimate to me but rather like a precise number.) Seventeen existing programs are profiled on the site.

Several districts, including Alexandria and Dover-Eyota, have planted apple trees.

Some Minnesota school districts have planted mini apple orchards.

In Bemidji, students at Solway Elementary School planted a garden and are now eating fresh, and frozen, vegetables. Others, including Dover-Eyota, plus Little Falls and Minneapolis Public Schools, are buying locally-grown produce.

Over in Montevideo, the public schools hosted an educational tomato-tasting event.

Down in the southeastern corner of the state, Winona Area Public Schools students are eating bison burgers and hot dogs thanks to a partnership with a local bison farm.

I liked what I read about these districts partnering up with local growers and producers. Even more, I like that some districts are taking the initiative and getting students involved by planting gardens and mini-orchards. Hands-on involvement, in my opinion, creates ownership, which spawns success.

Despite my excitement about the 69 Farm to School programs in Minnesota, I wonder why more districts are not involved. According to 2008-2009 statistics from the Minnesota Department of Education Web site, the state had 336 public-operating elementary and secondary independent school districts and 153 charter schools with a total of 2,006 public schools as of July 1 (2009).

Although I don’t know this for a fact, I suspect that funding is a problem in this tough economy and tight budgets. Perhaps also apathy and apprehension exist among parents, students, administrators and food service personnel. Finicky taste buds are likely a consideration given this generation is growing up on lots of processed foods and fast food.

Last winter I watched Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution on television as Oliver sought to get fresh, healthy foods into a West Virginia school. The task proved difficult as food service workers, students and others didn’t exactly embrace the health-conscious meals.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying. I would like to see more Minnesota schools join the Food to School Program and provide healthier meals for a student population that truly needs a healthier diet, both at home and in our schools.

Ditto for us adults. We certainly could learn to eat better too by buying (or accepting from family and friends) more locally-grown, fresh produce or growing our own.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling