By Susan Davis Gryder 2013-10-02 03:53:42
Communal farm life meets the challenges of modern school foodservice requirements. Tucked into rural areas in South Dakota, Montana and parts of Western Canada live the Hutterites, small groups of families bound together by their centuriesold beliefs and customs. Hallmarks of the traditional life of these self-described “colonies” include one-room schools and access to the freshest home-grown foods. But what happens when their old-fashioned practices bump up against the regulations and procedures required for participation in the federal child nutrition programs? A 500-Year-Old Tradition The Hutterites are part of a movement that began in the flames of Europe’s Reformation in the 1500s. The group got their name from an early church leader, Jacob Hutter, a 16th-century Austrian Anabaptist, who was burned at the stake because of his beliefs. Anabaptists are Christians who believe in adult baptism; other Anabaptist groups include the Amish and the Mennonites. After migrating from Austria to Russia, the Hutterites fled Europe entirely in the 1870s, escaping years of persecution to establish settlements in the Midwest and Canada. From the original group of 400 emigrants, there now exists a population of more than 40,000. Hutterites are often mentioned in conjunction with fellow Anabaptists like the Amish, but their emphasis on pooled resources without individual ownership sets them apart. Like other Anabaptists, they place a strong emphasis on pacifism. Hutterites live in rural, largely self-suffi- cient colonies of 10 to 20 families; colonists work together to farm and raise animals to feed themselves and generate income. In recent years, some colonies have started manufacturing operations, as well. They have a traditional social structure: Men manage the colonies and make most decisions, while women are in charge of traditional tasks like cooking and sewing. Unlike the Amish, the Hutterites embrace technology for many uses, and usually have advanced farming equipment. Many colonies have telephones, cell phones and computers. As their faith dictates, colonists own very little individually; the land and assets of the colony are owned communally. When a colony gets too big (more than ~150 people), the colony leadership establishes a “daughter” colony, deciding which families will move and ensuring that the daughter colony has enough people with the right skills to thrive. Colonists are usually easily recognizable to their neighbors, even away from the colony: They make their own clothing, and their dress is conservative, but can be colorful (except for more sober church garb). Most women cover their hair with a kerchief, and men wear hats and suspenders. At home in the colonies, Hutterite German, a variation of Tyrolean German from Austria, is spoken. A 21st-Century One-Room School Hutterite children go to school within their colonies, attending one-room schoolhouses that group grades K-8 together. Customarily, Hutterite kids stop formal schooling after 8th grade, turning to more vocational training to help with the work of the colony. But an increasing number of Hutterite students are continuing through 12th grade, either through colony classes or a GED, and some choose to go on to attend college. Colony schools aren’t completely separate from public school: In South Dakota, most colony schools are part of their local school districts, but operate independently. The district sends teachers, and sometimes aides, who work with “German teachers,” as the colonies call them, who provide instruction in the Hutterites’ German dialect. Hutterite schools participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and because the families don’t have individual incomes, they typically qualify for free/reducedpriced meals. But to earn reimbursements, the colony schools must comply with federal regulations—requirements that sometimes conflict with the colonists’ unique ways of doing things. The Ultimate Farm-to-School Program David Decker is the site supervisor for the child nutrition program at the Spring Lake Colony school in Arlington, S.D., and a member of the Spring Lake Hutterite colony. Decker oversees his school’s meal program and works with nearby Oldham- Ramona School District to ensure his meals and reporting are in compliance with federal and state rules. Decker also is the head gardener for the colony. “For the most part, we eat things in season,” he says. Interviewed at the beginning of the school year, Decker continues, “Right now I’m heading out to harvest some broccoli. We grow lots of fruit and vegetables, and for meat, we raise quite a few animals, like turkey and beef. Eggs are fresh from our laying hens.” He notes that the colony purchases some meat and other foods to supplement what they grow and raise on their own. Prepping meals for the colony’s 33 students is a group effort. “We have a head cook who oversees the main kitchen, with sets of two assistant cooks who cycle every week. During the summer, children ages 5 through 12 help in the garden, so they’re aware of where their food comes from,” explains Decker. The colony blanches and freezes the produce not consumed right away to save for later in the year. Among the favorites of the Spring Lake Colony school children is turkey nuggets—made from fresh turkey breast raised and butchered at the colony, before being breaded and fried. In the beginning of the school year, this entrée might be accompanied by fresh green beans, sliced cucumbers, potatoes and colony-baked bread or garlic buns. Culture Clash When Decker cites his top challenges, they largely mirror that of his counterparts in conventional schools. For example, he is relieved that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) lifted the weekly maximums on proteins, as he found it was hard to give kids enough meat to feel satisfied. Decker also finds it tricky to keep up with the everyday recordkeeping, ensuring that serving portions are recorded accurately, and that all meal components are represented—and doing this while attending to all of his other duties. Fortunately, “We get a lot of support from the district,” he affirms, “and we attend workshops once or twice a year. The challenge is taking that support and applying it to your program.” Sound familiar? But some colony schools find the NSLP a much harder fit. Joyce Everhart is manager of school meals for Sanborn Central School District in Forestburg, S.D., a rural single-school system that serves some 170 pre-K-12 students. Until recently, Everhart also supported school nutrition compliance at the nearby Upland Colony. She notes that Sanborn Central School has a long, well-established relationship with the colony, providing it with three K-8 teachers, aides for students with special needs, books and supplies. Everhart speaks of the Upland Colony with great respect. “They are the most loving, kind and cordial people,” she reports. “I have never left from a visit to them without a loaf of bread or something from the garden. They are proud to share with you and, boy, are they good cooks!” She also stresses that the head cook responsible for the colony’s compliance with the NSLP always has been willing to attend training workshops, while observing her traditions: “The head cook was so willing to learn and tried so hard. Her husband always accompanied her to state training and waited in the hallway for her,” recounts Everhart. This cooperative relationship between the colony and the district’s school nutrition department continued for 21 years, until 2012. Over time, says Everhart, the colonists became frustrated with the difficulties they had meeting the ever-stricter federal requirements for school meals, which often didn’t make sense for their way of life. “They milk their own cows, for example, so the rule that they had to purchase pasteurized milk was a major issue,” Everhart relays. “Why go buy milk when you can walk two steps out of your door to get it?” The newly revised meal pattern was a particular implementation challenge, she recounts, noting that the colony depends to a great extent on what is seasonally grown in their gardens and farms. Recollecting the first menu after the new rules went into effect, “I wondered how we were going to get that menu certified,” says Everhart. “The head cook had her own ideas of what she wanted to do, and trying to get in all the vegetable subgroups was a challenge. Also, she had all the recipes in her head! To standardize them and write them all out seemed like foolishness to her.” These struggles were made worse by some misconceptions and misunderstandings. Among these: A local newspaper published a story regarding the school district’s effort to achieve 100% scores on health inspections; the headline on the front page cited the colony schools’ inferior scores. “This hurt and embarrassed them terribly,” reports Everhart. “What the paper didn’t explain is that the state office deducted points because they use homecanned goods. They would let them keep using their own canned goods [but] write them up for it,” she explains, adding, “The colonies are immaculate, and they know food safety and take care of everything. I think they felt they were being picked on—and the story in the paper was the last straw.” Parting Ways When Everhart went to Upland Colony for her September 2012 visit, the head cook—and her husband—informed her that they wouldn’t participate in the NSLP anymore. Everhart was disappointed, but not surprised. “Through the years, each time something came down from USDA, they resisted. I went out many times to help and give any support I could, and together we were always able to overcome the hurdles.” But this time, the colonists were resolved. Everhart does not think the colony has taken a serious financial hit by losing school meal reimbursements. “They tell me they will miss the money, but they have peace of mind, not having the government tell them what to do,” she reports. But the loss of those free/reduced numbers has presented a hardship for Sanborn Central, since other monies and programs are contingent on free/reduced percentages. “Now we don’t qualify for all of the programs, since we’ve lost 30-some kids in the free category, as well as the part of their reimbursement that covered our administrative costs for helping them,” Everhart explains. In this district of less than 200 students, that’s a big hit. “The reimbursement also paid for the salary of one of the aides who worked at the colony, so that position has been eliminated,” she notes. Common Ground, Different Choices While some Hutterite colonies identify ways to work within federal school meal requirements and others decide they can no longer comply, there is one constant: the ties between colony schools and the school districts that surround them. “Through these years, I’ve come to be a very good friend of the colonies,” says Everhart. “They work so hard as a community,” she adds admiringly, “and complete huge projects so well. It’s just a different lifestyle, a society with a very different outlook.” Susan Davis Gryder is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md. Photography by roger4336/Foter/CC by SA.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.
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