It’s been a week since Iowa Local Food Day, but child nutrition director Denise Rawson isn’t slowing down. She is working hard with her team at Alburnett Community School District to provide healthy local food sources for students year-round, both in their menus and in their classroom learning opportunities.

Rawson, in her 16th year at Alburnett, is passionate about using locally sourced foods in school meals and made Iowa Local Food Day a priority for their district. Students at Alburnett were treated with a delicious school lunch of local foods to celebrate the day, including a variety of apples, sliced cucumbers, fresh raspberries, salad greens and an apple salad made with locally sourced vanilla yogurt. And that was just the start of their local food day festivities.

Local Food Day

“We did an entire week of celebrating local foods,” Rawson said. “We have so many great local food sources that we included something local each day and had a local food spotlight on our printed menus and signage.”

Iowa Local Food Day is held each year on the fourth Wednesday of September to highlight the importance of local foods. The inclusion of local foods can help provide healthy, nutrient-rich meals while supporting community partners. Schools, colleges, early childhood centers and other community partners register to participate in the day and commit to providing at least two locally sourced foods for a meal, snack or taste test.

Iowa Local Food Day also serves as the kick off to October’s National Farm to School Month, which highlights farmers and local foods with month-long activities.

“Events like this help students connect the dots between the foods being served to them at school and where those foods come from in the community,” said Meg Collins, education program consultant for the Iowa Department of Education. “Locally sourced foods can provide not only healthy and tasty meals but also opportunities for learning in the classroom.”

Local Food Day

At Alburnett, Rawson has partnered with district teachers to incorporate learning about local foods and nutrition education into their curriculums. Future activity plans include field trips to orchards and farms, classroom projects, presentations from local vendors, taste tests and Water Wednesdays featuring fruit– or vegetable-infused water.

“I don’t think we can teach our children enough about where their food comes from,” she said. “Many students may not have picked a vegetable from a garden before or know about the nutrients you can get from minimally processed foods. By talking about local foods in school, we can nurture a passion and appreciation for local growers, farmers and our general community and support them by purchasing and marketing their products.”

One particular local food source for Alburnett has included their own backyard. In previous years, Rawson has teamed up with the district’s FFA program to use produce from the school garden, greenhouse and container gardens, and she hopes that it is an option for future meal planning and learning.

“By having gardens onsite, students can see produce, like tomatoes or snap peas, in different stages of growth,” she said. “Students walk by those spaces every day, so it provides a real-time look and appreciation into how food is grown.”

Local Food Day

Rawson’s commitment to local foods at Alburnett can be seen in school meal menus throughout the year. She and her team incorporate healthy food options from local vendors, such as farmers, dairy producers and orchards, in the cafeteria several times per week, and taste tests with new or unfamiliar foods are offered regularly on Tuesdays. Rawson promotes the fun test tastes on social media, posters, stickers and tally boards and has seen great results.

“Since Taste Test Tuesday may use foods students haven’t tried before, we want to make it into something they will enjoy and build that trust with them,” Rawson said. “There is a lot of excitement with the taste tests, and kids are asking parents about these new foods and recipes.”

For their innovative work with local foods, Alburnett was named as the 2023 Golden Root Award Small School of the Year by the Iowa Farm to School and Early Care Network.

“Alburnett is one of Iowa’s stand-out schools for local foods,” Collins said. “They serve as a best practice model for any district looking to incorporate more local foods for their students.”

Local Food Day

Rawson credits their success to strong community partnerships, supportive collaboration with school administrators and parents and open dialogue with the school’s food service staff. She will be the first to admit that it is hard, time-consuming work, but she believes it is beneficial for any school to include local foods.

“You have to be committed to the end-game result of teaching students about their food sources,” she said. “Educating students about the infinite amounts of produce and local goods is near to my heart. They can learn more about their community and eat better quality foods.”

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