ARLINGTON, Minn. - There are countless ways Mitchel Wentzlaff, Josh Hansen, and Ashlie Weber could have spent their summer, but of all places, the Sibley East high school students picked a plot next a dairy barn, spending hot mornings knee deep in dirt.
"Last week we picked 700 pounds of tomatoes," said Weber.
Time spent in the Sibley East garden is a part time summer job, but the students know what is cultivated there could one day take them far.
"Literally it's from the garden into our trays," said Wentzlaff.
The first seeds in the Sibley East Garden took root three years ago, when the Sibley East agriculture teachers Tim Uhlenkamp and Jeff Eppen needed more than a classroom to grow.
"We wanted to teach students where their food came from and how food is grown everyone is getting farther and farther away from the production standpoint of the farm," said Uhlenkamp.
Their idea sprouted a two acre spread. The students sell part of their bounty to locals who participate in a CSA, or community supported agriculture, but the biggest portion of the crop goes right into the cafeteria, thousands of pounds of produce before the first day of school.
The sight brings head cook Joan Budahn to a rare loss for words.
"It's overwhelming, right now it's just overwhelming to see all those tomatoes because we were getting to the end," jokes Budahn, who says she may just have enough tomatoes to last the school year.
The cooks whipped up zucchini brownies, and with 100 pounds of cabbage became even more creative, freezing coleslaw and simmering sauerkraut. The blue ribbon recipes are only fit for award winning vegetables. The students showed off their green peppers that received top awards at the county fair.
Last year, nearly 900 schools like Sibley East, took part in Minnesota's Farm to School program, benefiting more than 558,000 students, according to the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy. Research shows typically produce travels at least 1,500 miles from farm to plate, but for Sibley East students, backyard is better, even though the district isn't sure if the program is cost saving so far.
"Other schools can do it, they just need to get everybody on board. Once that happens, as long as the motivation is there to do it, it's not that difficult," said Eppen.
Wentzlaff snaps a green bean right off the vine.
"I like these vegetables a lot better than the ones out of a can. You can tell the difference when they are using it," said Wentzlaff.