Embracing the local: MN Farm to School programs see dramatic increase

Minnesota schools are embracing locally produced food, according to a new report.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) study shows a dramatic increase in Farm to School initiatives in Minnesota. A survey of 165 school districts - half those in Minnesota - found that the number engaged in Farm to School rose from only 10 in 2006 to 123 in 2010.

JoAnne Berkenkamp, IATP's program director for local foods, says the initiatives promote healthy eating and educate students about how and where their food is grown. She says there are other benefits as well.

"It's also an economic-development strategy that is really aimed at supporting our local farmers and our rural economies. And it's a strategy for building community by engaging parents and farmers and the grandparents, and many other members of the community in what's happening in school food service."

Most schools rated their Farm to School programs as either "very" or "somewhat" successful, and would either continue or expand their efforts. Districts also incorporated a growing diversity of foods into their programs, with apples, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes and squash topping the list. Berkenkamp says the most common challenges school districts face in adopting Farm to School include extra time and labor for food preparation, price and budgeting, and finding farmers from whom they can purchase food directly.

Greg Reynolds with Riverbend Farm in Delano encourages farmers to take the initiative in making those connections with schools. He got involved with Farm to School two years ago, and believes it's the next big market for small farmers. He also enjoys the satisfaction of knowing how his work impacts students' nutrition.

"When it's local, they eat more fruits and vegetables. And what the cook supervisors found was that they continue to eat more fruits and vegetables when the local stuff isn't in season. So it's really making a difference in their diet. They're eating better food."

Apples tend to be a common way to introduce Farm to School to children. But when the Orono School District started the program, says Kris Diller, who supervises the district's child-nutrition program, it decided to attract more students with honey and brought in a beekeeper.

"He brought in samples of his beehives, and he brought in his beekeeper's suit and his helmet, and explained to the kids how he goes and collects the honey. And then the students all got samples of his honey. And then, one of the days, we made cornbread, and then we had Scott's Bees and Honey that day. So the kids knew that came from his farm."

The Orono district has been involved with Farm to School for three years, Diller says, using a range of fruits and vegetables as well as locally produced cheese, honey and bread. While some districts do Farm to School only in the fall, Diller says Orono has a year-round program, and hopes to incorporate a community garden as a next step.

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    Sharon Rolenc's picture
    Sharon Rolenc