MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — They are the busiest restaurants in the southern Twin Cities suburbs — 10 Prior Lake-Savage schools serve around 4,500 lunches every day.

“They like school lunch. And they want to eat it,” director of Child Nutrition Emily Malone said.

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WCCO’s Jason DeRusha and Malone talked over whole wheat spaghetti and local turkey red sauce, alongside 400 school lunch buyers at Jeffers Pond Elementary School in Prior Lake.

“In Prior Lake, we’re right on the edge of a lot of agriculture. We were trying to figure out how we could take advantage of that,” she said.

On this day, they’re using turkey sausage from Ferndale Farms in Cannon Falls. In the summer, they get corn from a local farm and have a three-day festival.

“It’s hard for small local farmers to connect with schools, it’s a little tricky, but I think we’ve figured it out,” said Malone.

Through a partnership with local food hub The Good Acre, and through direct outreach to farms, the schools here have been able to make it work. Sometimes the farm, though, is hyperlocal.

“I told my friends, ‘Yeah I grew that pepper,'” said Logan Hennen, a Prior Lake High School student who takes part in a school gardening program.

“We had potatoes, peppers. Green beans are my favorite,” Veronica Wolfe, another student gardener, said.

(credit: CBS)

Grade school students garden too.

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“We had to write a paper to get into the garden, I was so happy I got in,” Olivia Abbott, a fourth-grader at Jeffers Pond, said.

On her birthday, instead of celebrating with a cake, she celebrated in the garden.

“I found a fat carrot that I got to have. It was really good,” she said.

Of course, offering organic veggies and locally-grown food doesn’t do any good if the children don’t eat it. Every week, the school offers a “Try-It Tuesday” experiment. Cafeteria staff walk around with samples of foods that might be unfamiliar like persimmons and artichoke hearts.

“I love the food options, they’re pretty healthy and all pretty good in my opinion,” Devmini Jayatilaka, another high school science student working in the gardens, said.

The question is: Why focus on local foods and scratch cooking?

“We can limit our ingredients to the few ingredients it takes to make a spaghetti sauce. We don’t put high fructose corn syrup. We can get closer to our food, and I think it tastes better,” Malone said.

The goal, according to Malone, is to inspire students to make healthy and smart food choices not only in the schools, but also in homes.

“it’s a lot more expensive. Vegetables are organic, most are local which are more expensive. However, we want kids to eat healthy foods and have lifelong healthy eating habits,” she said.

And the more children like the food, the more they buy school lunch, which means the more money the district has to buy better quality ingredients, she said.

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“I think it tastes better,” Malone said.

Jason DeRusha