At Lyndale Elementary in South Minneapolis in late October, a crowd of well-dressed adults stood inside the cafeteria, waiting their turn to proceed through the lunch line. Two state legislators were among the crowd: Reps. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, who would go on to lose her seat in the November election, and Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, who held on to his.
With her voice raised to cut through the noise, Kate Seybold, farm-to-school coordinator for Minneapolis Public Schools, painted a picture of a school menu full of meats, grains and produce sourced from Minnesota farms. In 2017, the district spent $250,000 on 130,000 pounds of produce from 15 farms, as well as another $155,000 on local turkey and beef.
To get around the mismatch between the school year and farmers market season, Seybold explained, they buy a lot of root vegetables, including watermelon radishes, which made a colorful addition to the day’s options. “They do not taste like watermelon, as some of the students expected,” she said.
When the adults filed through the line, they grabbed cartons of milk and allowed servers to scoop chicken alfredo and roasted delicata squash onto their trays. As they tasted the products of Seybold’s program, they heard a pitch farm-to-school advocates have been polishing for nearly two years: Though Minnesota is considered a leader in farm-to-school in the United States, it has been slow to adopt policies that would provide better support and resources to school districts and farmers around the state who are trying to work together.
When school districts fill their kitchens with locally sourced food, everyone wins, advocates say: School children eat better, small farms sell their crops and the public’s money feeds the local economy. Since 2002, the number of Minnesota school districts with farm-to-school programs has grown from six to 268. But without policies providing technical and financial support for school districts, the state won’t see the full benefit of such cooperation, Weber said. “The food system has not been kind to our young people over the last 30 years.”
In 2017, farm-to-school advocates approached the Legislature with a proposed bill that would bring Minnesota more in line with other states. They want the state to fund a position in the education or agriculture department that would be a centralized resource for schools. They also want a grant program that would be used to reimburse districts that procure local food, legislation modeled after programs in Oregon and Michigan. The new policy would add to an existing grant program that helps school districts buy equipment they need to incorporate more Minnesota agricultural products.
The bill made it through three committees that year, but wasn’t included in the final budget, said Erin McKee, who works for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, which is leading the current policy effort. Advocates have spent the nearly two years since getting ready for the 2019 session, trying to find the right legislators who will adopt farm-to-school as their personal pet issue and help drive it through the process. “Legislators have their priorities that they go into the session with,” McKee said.
They’ll need those relationships and a favorable budget forecast to be successful, said Thom Peterson, who lobbies the state with Minnesota Farmers Union. Farm-to-school legislation has been a priority for Farmers Union members for awhile. He said it takes time for the state to pass new policies, especially when funding is an issue.
“The ag budget itself is very small,” he said in an email, estimating it at a quarter or half of a percent of the state budget. “The education portion is much bigger but they don’t want to fund an ag program even though it has to do with schools.”
Not knowing how the balance of power would shift, advocates cast a wide net, courting Democrats and Republicans alike. They hosted a food and farming reception at the Capitol last year, invited gubernatorial candidates to forums to talk about farming issues during the campaign season, participated in caucusing to get their issues into party platforms, and invited lawmakers to see it for themselves at schools and early child education centers.
“It’s not a divisive issue. It’s such a positive thing on all different levels,” McKee said. “Everyone could find something to support.”