As we seek bipartisan compromise at the Legislature this session, we Minnesotans can easily agree that we must protect the health of our children and the health of our family farms. As legislators of different parties, we believe our bipartisan Farm to School bill (HF 811, SF 1346) does just that.
States around the country have enacted policies to support Farm to School, yet Minnesota lags in instituting state support. Despite this, nearly 300 school districts, Head Starts and early care programs are buying some of their food from local farmers. It’s time Minnesota established itself as a leader in supporting these efforts.
We believe in Farm to School because of its unique benefits. It’s good for kids. It’s good for farmers. It’s good for local communities.
Lifelong learning requires lifelong nutrition. The link between the food kids eat and their educational and health outcomes is becoming increasingly clear. Access to fresh, healthy food, starting as young as possible, fuels brain development and shapes food preferences over a lifetime.
Did you know that when kids have access to fresh, local vegetables, they actually eat more of them? In classrooms around the state, we’ve seen kids get excited about freshly harvested carrots, Minnesota oatmeal and local bison chili — even more so when they get to meet the farmer who grew the food.
Educators get excited about Farm to School, too, because they can teach kids where their food comes from in an interactive and stimulating way. Lake City and Zumbrota-Mazeppa Schools Food Service Director Brian Wright reports that local food taste tests are the premier event of the cafeteria calendar.
Additionally, we know that Minnesota farmers need new markets. As commodity prices sink amid trade wars and global competition, farmers are increasingly looking for new ways to stay in the black. Right now, the demand for local food from consumers outpaces supply. The problem is risk. It’s hard to justify the significant investment of time and money to transition to growing for local markets if you can’t predict how much and what crops will sell.
Farm to School gives farmers a large, stable and predictable market that they can plan for in advance. It also allows them to grow value-added crops that boost the bottom line and keep more families living on and caring for the land.
Finally, Farm to School creates a supply chain that stimulates local economies. Farmers Ben Doherty and Erin Johnson of Open Hands Farm in Northfield report that selling to schools has allowed them to triple their own business, hire more employees and support other local businesses in their community. Instead of going out the door to California, money spent on carrots from our neighbor farmers like Ben and Erin recirculates through Minnesota communities.
A study from Oregon showed that for every dollar spent on Farm to School programs, $2.16 is generated in additional economic activity for the local economy. Our Farm to School bill would not only support farmers directly but also would give small businesses and entrepreneurs in greater Minnesota a boost in revitalizing their communities.
Here is how the legislation would work: Schools and early care providers that purchase locally grown and raised foods would be eligible for additional reimbursement through a grant program. At the same time, the Department of Agriculture would support farmers and districts who want to connect. Outreach and technical support are critical because schools have unique compliance requirements and guidelines for nutrition. Just as Minnesota provides technical assistance for a variety of other businesses that export and sell to unique markets, helping set up Farm to School supply chains at the front end will enable farmers and businesses to be successful over the long term.
In 2017, the Farm to School bill had bipartisan authors and was under consideration, but ultimately was not included in the final agriculture appropriation bill. Gov. Tim Walz expressed his support for Farm to School on the campaign trail. This is the year to get this done. Our kids like it. Our farmers need it. Our communities deserve it.
Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, is a member of the Minnesota House. Mike Goggin, R-Red Wing, is a member of the Minnesota Senate.