An apple a day is said to keep the doctor away.

But at Litchfield Middle School recently, the fruit was used to teach seventh-graders a brief history of apples and the benefits of fresh, locally grown produce. And, just maybe, to get those students to come into the school cafeteria and give school lunch a try again … or for the first time..

“Food services’ goal, bottom line, is to just expand participation in the school feeding program,” said Aimee Haag, farm-to-school liaison for Litchfield, Hutchinson and Dassel-Cokato school districts. “We know that we have some kids right away, from the moment they get to school, and other kids might need a little reason to try school lunch again. You know, it historically hasn’t been the best. But that is really improving. And we have some really great people here, using a lot of local food – literally tons and tons and tons of food this year coming from farmers nearby.”

Haag, who co-owns rebelSoil in rural Litchfield in addition to her school food service duties, spoke to Julie Rick’s two foods classes at Litchfield Middle School in late October, a few days before National Apple Day, as part of the Harvest of the Month program for which the three area school districts received a state grant.

The goal of Minnesota’s Harvest of the Month program is to promote seasonally available, locally grown, raised and harvested products in schools. Through education, it’s hoped the program can encourage healthy food choices by increasing students’ exposure to and knowledge of seasonal produce, according to the Minnesota Departments of Agriculture and Education, when they announced the grant application process.

Along with the Farm to School program, the effort looks to support local farmers and create excitement about school meals by piquing student’s curiosity about where their food comes from.

“Our classroom goals for being involved in the farm to school program are to: increase knowledge about Minnesota-grown, seasonal foods; build excitement for school meals and the nutrition program; use foods as a context for academic learning and achievement,” Rick said.

Haag shared plenty of that with the LMS seventh-graders, along with the many different varieties of apples and their connection to Minnesota.

As part of the lesson, Haag and Rick handed samples of four different apple varieties to students, asking them to taste and record their thoughts about flavor and texture of each. After sampling, they were encouraged to share their thoughts about each apple, while Haag gave a brief history of the apple’s development.

Haag also explained how some apple varieties are used in preparation of school lunches, things like salads and slaw, which go beyond the ordinary sliced apples found for dessert.

“My hope is that kids will be kind of turned on to the fun and the discovery nature of trying new things, and trying local foods. And that they do taste better,” Haag said. You know, they don’t only taste better, but they have a story. So if you can just get them, like, clued into that, I hope they’re try it. That’s all we can do, is just hope they try and they have fun while they’re in the cafeteria.”

The farm to school program at Litchfield, Dassel-Cokato and Hutchinson schools continues to expand. While student participation numbers may not have risen dramatically – yet – the number of farms involved in providing produce for the program has. To date, Haag said, she is working with 20 area farms, “with a few more in the works for next season.”

“We are always looking for more farmers to help meet demand,” Haag said. “It would be so, so great if we could support more growers nearby and more rapidly establish a resilient local food system.”

For her part, Rick said she appreciated the effort made by the school nutrition program team to bring local foods – their taste and their story – to students’ lunch trays.

“I feel Litchfield Schools are so lucky to have staff in our school lunch program that are willing to put in the time and effort to apply for these grants and receive extra funding for programs such as Minnesota Harvest of the Month.” Rick said. “They truly want to give students nutritious meals and share knowledge and experiences with them to help them make healthy food and choice today and in the future.”