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In Decorah, every day is Local Food Day

Date: Wednesday, September 28, 2022

"local food day"If commitment and passion for local foods were a recipe, Nutrition Director Chad Elliott and the Decorah Community School District would have all the right ingredients.

Elliott and his staff are especially excited about their culinary plans for district diners to celebrate Iowa Local Food Day. But then every day in this school district is local food day and that is what makes them extraordinary.

Elliott’s dedication and passion for cooking with local foods is as permeating as the smell of freshly baked apple pie.

“Cooking is my life, period,” Elliott said. “Everything I love and do is centered around good food. I have grafted 40 apple trees in our orchard at my home. I have three-quarters of an acre of asparagus. I built a wood fired brick oven and my wife and I sold bread at farmers’ markets. I am excited about my work and what I do. When I get to go into the kitchen I call it ‘I get to go play!’”

Following completion of his culinary arts degree from the Iowa Culinary Institute at Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny, Elliott worked in a few restaurants, managed a pizza place and when a restored restaurant in the Hotel Winneshiek had an opening, he seized the opportunity to grow his skills and return to his hometown of Decorah. He was hired as a line cook, then advanced to sous-chef and finally served seven years as executive chef for the hotel.

Chad Elliott, nutrition director for Decorah Community School District

“Cooking is my passion and I love it, but the restaurant business was all nights, weekends, holidays, and long hours, so I decided to try something different,” Elliott said. “I really enjoy gardening and growing things, so I became an assistant grower at a 14-acre greenhouse in northeast Iowa. The greenhouse specialized in flowers but also herbs, tomatoes and cucumbers and was looking to expand their produce market.”

Continuing with his passion for growing things, Elliott married, had a couple children and grew his family life alongside his career. About the time he began to worry he may never have the chance to cook again, he learned about working as a chef for a school district and thought it would be a perfect fit.

Elliott recalls being hired by the Decorah Community School District at a time when all the federal nutrition standards for children were being updated. It was a notable transition for schools and a perfect time for someone with his vast, varied culinary knowledge, skills and experience to come aboard.

Elliott has now been with the Decorah district for eleven years, the past five as nutrition director – a position that permits daily expression of his passion for cooking with local foods, all for the benefit of students and staff.

“Local food is important and we have it on our menus every day of the year whether it’s yogurt, mixed greens, kale, the list goes on,” Elliott said. “I have always said that being a chef was easy, but being a nutrition director, not so easy. When you are a chef you can add butter, fat, sugar, salt to make the food taste good. Food directors have limitations and restrictions on food preparation, so why not start with the freshest produce and ingredients that you can get? Then you have everything going for you.”

View Decorah CSD photos of local food menu items and Local Food Day celebration

And it doesn’t get any more local than out the back door 10 feet from the district’s central kitchen. Up to 1,400 lunches are served daily in the district and thanks to the extra work of physics teacher Tim Hayes, who organizes and leads student garden crews, Decorah High School’s gardens produce nearly enough kale for the district for the entire school year.

“We have a greenhouse that is on a track so we can extend the growing season by just rolling it over the raised kale bed so we are picking kale in December,” Elliott said. “In addition to including kale in recipes, any teacher or student in the district can order Kale Julius Chicken Caesar Salad on a daily basis. I don’t think most people realize how much local food we include in our menus. We advertise it on our Facebook page and we place an apple icon next to each local food we feature on the menu.”

Recently, Jennifer DeLaRosa’s third grade students, who tend a school garden raised bed, had the opportunity to work with Elliott for a local food, garden-to-table experience.

“They were so cute when they strolled into the kitchen,” Elliott said. “Some of them had a green bean, some had a big tomato, a pepper, or a cherry tomato. Each student had picked something and brought it in and we made salsa because we had fajitas on the menu that day. They all got to taste their harvest.”

Students of all ages are involved in a variety of steps in growing and preparing local food for the district.

“The school garden crews grow the best garlic I have ever seen in my life,” Elliott said. “Last year the school garden produced 100 pounds of garlic, so we had seven or eight students help peel 100 pounds of garlic! We process it, put it into four-ounce containers and freeze it, so throughout the year we have quarter cup portions all ready to go for our recipes.

“We do the same thing with fresh basil. And a couple times a year we get a thousand ears of corn that need to be shucked, so students from Gina Holthaus’s health classes will come to help shuck it.”

Elliott said they also work with the local Seed Savers Exchange that has donated seed packets to the district’s cafeteria Earth Day celebration which focuses on pollinators and produce. Every student in the district receives seed packets along with literature on why pollinators are so important.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, supply chain disruptions hampered school nutrition departments’ abilities to access necessary ingredients for school meals. Elliott said that’s when a lightbulb went off in his head.

“I thought, we’ve got all these local producers here. I can get cheese, I can get lettuce and we want the producers to be here and so we need to support them. Then that money is going back into the community,” he said.

Elliott said they are fortunate to have an Iowa Food Hub in the area. Iowa Food Hub is an educational, research-driven, nonprofit organization working to connect farmers, families and food grown close to home by managing the aggregation, distribution and marketing of source-identified food from local and regional producers to satisfy wholesale, retail and institutional demand.

“If I need 800 pounds of watermelons, it is one phone call,” Elliott said. “In April or May I can usually send the food hub next year’s order and list week by week what we want to order. That gives the farmers a chance to grow those things and know they are going to sell them. There is less risk involved. Hopefully, they can price things a little better for us as well.”

Elliott said that last year’s celebration of Local Food Day was such a success that this year they will do something similar.

“One year I rented a smoker and we smoked local pork and made some poutine with it and that went over very well,” Elliott said. “We have also made pizza from local ingredients. But last year the burgers brought people out of the woodwork! The Winneshiek Cattlemen are here at 6 a.m. setting up, then they start grilling and students and staff are walking right by them, enjoying the aromas and getting excited about the meal!

“This year we have very special circumstances because Tom and Jeanette Hanson, who run Rock Cedar Ranch, a nearby beef operation, are donating an animal. We just pay for the processing, so in July I called the meat locker to arrange it. We basically put the whole animal into hamburgers. We also purchased 1,400 burgers from the Food Hub as well.”

In addition to featuring the local meat, they are also including local wheat for breakfast pizza, roasted local potatoes, local pears and local caramel apples.

While it takes some extra work and planning to pursue local foods, Elliott said it is well worth the effort. There can be a bit more labor with it and some inconsistencies where you may not get a case of peppers that are all exactly uniform in size. He also emphasizes the necessity for staff buy-in – an important component when asking staff to hand-shred coleslaw instead of buying it all shredded and bagged.

“Teachers and administration are very supportive,” Elliott said. “They describe it as you don’t know what you have or know any difference until you go elsewhere. Those positive comments and feedback help the nutrition staff feel really great about their work.”

Elliott said a key ingredient for success is to start on a small scale. He first established a relationship with a local orchard and then tried to add a new local food each year.

“It’s a no brainer for us every day,” Elliott said. “The price is right and we adjust the workload and try to balance it. We have a plan for every day depending on what preparation is required for a particular menu. It is just one more way to do good for our community. We want to support our local farmers. We like doing local food day because it is a chance for us to announce and publicize our local food commitment.”

Learn more about Iowa’s Farm to School Program aimed at increasing the availability of local foods in schools and providing educational programming on sustainability and the impact of healthy eating on overall wellness.