Lifelong learning requires lifelong nutrition. Farm to School and Early Care initiatives put fresh, healthy, locally grown food in front of kids. Fresh local food is more likely to be eaten, large institutional purchases are a boon to farmers, and money spent locally is a boost to the local economy.
Since 2012, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) has worked to provide the governor and state agencies tools to increase Farm to School purchasing in Minnesota, including supporting the establishment of a Farm to School kitchen equipment grant program in the Department of Agriculture (MDA). But there is so much more to do.
Minnesota is in the minority of states that do not have official statewide policy supporting Farm to School and Early Care.
Since the fall of 2014, a broad group of Minnesota stakeholders have been discussing what policy is needed to advance and expand Farm to School throughout the state. This group includes organizations and state agencies representing agriculture, small business, public health and nutrition, academic research, education, healthy food access, anti-hunger, rural development and more. We agreed on three core priorities:
Maintain Farm to School success through the equipment grant within the Agricultural Growth, Research and Innovation (AGRI) Program at MDA.
Reimburse sponsors of USDA child nutrition programs an average of five cents per meal for the purchase of Minnesota-grown unprocessed or minimally processed food.
Fund six educators and four specialists to provide research-based education and technical assistance to Minnesota’s farmers interested in selling their products to Minnesota schools, focusing on beginning, specialty crop and small to mid-sized producers.
Unfortunately, the group lacked the funding to successfully advocate for a bill in the legislature. At the end of 2016, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation provided IATP with a 2-year grant to lead this effort. Here is what happened:
Farm to School & Early Care policy advocacy effort under Kellogg Foundation grant
Kellogg Foundation awarded IATP funding specifically to support Farm to School & Early Care advocacy in Minnesota.
Immediately after receiving notice of this grant, IATP began contacting key partners to prepare for the start of the legislative session.
Simultaneous with individual and small group calls and meetings, IATP immediately began planning an initial large stakeholder group informational and planning meeting.
On December 22, the large stakeholder group, hereafter referred to as the “Minnesota Farm to School and Early Care Coalition” or simply “the Coalition,” met in person (with remote members joining by phone) to develop a strategy to advance Farm to School and Early Care policy.
Moving the bill forward
The Coalition began meeting every other Friday from January through May (during the legislative session).
Smaller subcommittees met as needed to focus on advocacy at the capitol, communications and outreach.
A small steering committee held biweekly check-in calls, separate from the large group meetings.
The original Coalition of 23 stakeholders expanded to 66 within the year.
With input from the Coalition, original policy priorities were adjusted to reflect political realities of the session.
In the 2016 election, the Minnesota Senate flipped from Democratic to Republican control, while the House retained a Republican majority. Many first-time legislators took office on platforms of reduced spending and small government. This made it a particularly challenging environment for new government spending, especially creating new government positions. However, leadership in both chambers was more representative of farm districts, and we were optimistic the bill could still have traction.
We modified the requests to ask for a reduced amount of reimbursement money and fewer new Extension positions. The original cost of five cents per meal would have totaled about $10 million. We decided to ask for $4.5 million per year and specify that schools or child care environments with higher numbers of free and reduced-price enrollment would be prioritized in distribution of grant funds. We reduced the request for new Extension positions from six to three, specifying that two of these be in different, noncontiguous regions outside the Twin Cities metro. The Coalition believed these changes were necessary to secure authors for the bill, improve its odds of passage and provide a strong base for future sessions.
With considerable assistance from the Public Health Law Center, the Coalition completed a full draft of the bill.
The policy could be directed at either the Department of Education or Agriculture. We chose the Department of Agriculture because the existing Farm to School equipment grants are housed there and because partners there seemed generally supportive of the idea. Then we determined which legislators to approach to ask to author the bill, focusing on members of Agriculture committees.
As the Coalition honed its core message —“Good for Farmers. Good for Kids. Good for the Local Economy”—IATP developed a flyer and website to support the group’s efforts, compiling relevant Farm to School and Early Care success stories by geographic location and legislative district, focusing on key representatives.
With stories and materials in hand, we began meeting with members of the House Agriculture Policy Committee and Agriculture Finance Committee and the Senate Agriculture Finance Committee—the three key committees for bill passage. The Coalition was able to secure strategic Republican chief authors in each chamber. Rep. Debra Kiel (R-Crookston) was the lead author in the House. She is a sugar beet farmer from Northwest Minnesota who is more senior than most members of House, a longtime member of both Ag Committees, and a member of the Ag Finance Committee, which controls funding decisions. Sen. Mike Goggin (R-Red Wing) was the chief author in the Senate. He is an executive at Red Wing shoes and represents a district with many farms, including one of the largest turkey farmers active in Farm to School.
The Coalition secured several bipartisan co-authors in both chambers:
House: Debra Kiel (R-Crookston), Paul Anderson (R-Starbuck), Jeanne Poppe (DFL-Austin), Nels Pierson (R-Rochester), Tim Mahoney (DFL-St. Paul), Tony Jurgens (R-Cottage Grove) and John Poston (R-Lake Shore)
Senate: Michael Goggin (R-Red Wing), Dan Sparks (DFL-Austin), Bill Weber (R-Luverne), the Chair of the Senate Agriculture Finance Committee, Andrew Lang (R-Olivia) and Kari Dziedzic (DFL-Minneapolis)
Members of the Coalition also met with other members of the target committees to secure support beyond the author list, including with the Chair of the House Agriculture Finance committee, who eventually supported the bill despite historical tension with Farm to School efforts. This work laid a strong foundation, and the bill was introduced in both houses of the Minnesota Legislature as HF2049/SF1657.
The Coalition researched and compiled a spreadsheet of key possible testifiers who could be enlisted to support the bill in any potential hearings. Although the Coalition introduced the bill relatively late in the session (due to mobilizing so close to the start of session), it was successful in securing hearings in each of the three committees needed to pass through. The logistics of the hearings were tricky. The Coalition was only informed of the bill’s inclusion in a hearing a few days prior, leading to a scramble to secure testifiers on short notice. Despite this, the Coalition is proud to have secured 12 testifiers from around the state to testify in support of the bill. For each hearing, the Coalition made sure to have representation from a diverse group of stakeholders, including testifiers representing farmers, food service professionals, business owners and early care providers. They met with each testifier—most of whom had never testified or even attended a hearing—before each hearing to go over logistics and explain how to frame and share their story in a strategic way, highlighting the bill’s benefits.
The bill received a positive response from members of the three committees who held the hearings, and each committee passed the bill. However, when it came time to negotiate the omnibus Agriculture Finance package, our bill was not included. The lead authors said leadership in both chambers did not want to create any new government positions, which was likely the bill’s downfall.
We were disappointed that the bill did not pass, but proud of our progress in one year of advocacy in a difficult political situation. We believe the will for the policy exists in the legislature; the challenge is building will for the funding.
While working to pass this new legislation, we monitored our other priority—protecting the funding that was already established for the MDA Farm to School and Early Care kitchen equipment grant. Because the program was well-liked and successful, most of our time and effort focused on the new legislation. However, the Coalition learned the established program was in danger of being cut, with the funds being diverted to large corn and soybean interests. We found there were substantial misconceptions working against Farm to School and Early Care initiatives: They only benefit metro-based schools and early care environments; they only support fruits and vegetables and don’t include meats and other products; and that they only focus on elite organic foods. The work to demonstrate the value of Farm to School and Early Care throughout the session was key to persuading legislators to preserve this funding. We corrected these misconceptions and stressed the proven economic, public health and community benefits Farm to School and Early Care can have, particularly for rural and farming communities. As a result, the Chair of the House Finance Committee explicitly said we had changed his thinking about what these programs are and can do, which is a huge win. We hadn’t anticipated the need to go on the defensive, but with the current legislative makeup, we believe that the Farm to School equipment grant program may have been cut without the work we did in 2017.
Despite not passing the new legislation, building relationships and framing the narrative of Farm to School and Early Care with legislators was critical in 2017. By the end of the session, the Coalition had reached nearly 70 people and continued to grow.
The Minnesota state budget operates on a two-year (or biennium) cycle, covering two fiscal years. 2018 was not a “budget year,” so the Coalition’s bill, which included new funding for increased reimbursement and new state positions, could not be passed this session. The Coalition’s strategy for this year focused on building momentum for the 2019 budget session and looking for opportunities to advance their policy priorities outside of the legislative process.
Members of the Coalition met with leaders from other public health, food and farming advocacy organizations to strategize on how to support each other’s efforts and work together to promote a healthier, community-based food system in Minnesota. There was a strong belief that increased collaboration across broader stakeholder groups to create a united front on food and farming policy issues in Minnesota is needed.
Making good food systems an election issue
We worked with several partner organizations to create a shared Food Systems Resolution to be introduced at party caucuses in an effort to integrate food and farming into platforms.
IATP created a "Caucus for Good Food" training podcast where partners provided education on the caucus process.
Partners introduced the shared Resolution at community meetings around the state and spread it broadly through listservs and organizational mailing lists.
Partners attended caucuses across the state and at least 25 introduced the Resolution in their precinct.
Laying the groundwork for next year
We worked with partners from the Minnesota School Nutrition Association and the Good Food Access Fund to plan and host a joint Good Roots for Our Wellness “GROW” Reception at the Minnesota Capitol on March 26th. All state legislators were invited, including key committee members who would be responsible for passing the Farm to School and Early Care bill in 2019. The event was scheduled as session would be ending for the day to make it easier for legislators attend. There were also constituents from key districts in attendance, who hand-delivered invitation reminders to their legislators immediately before the event.
In addition to education stations and tables, the GROW Reception featured delicious healthy food made with local ingredients served by school districts and partners from Dream of Wild Health. The program highlighted bills supported by the Minnesota Farm to School and Early Care Coalition, the Minnesota School Nutrition Association and the Good Food Access Fund and chief bill authors were formally recognized and thanked. The reception was well-received, with more than 35 legislators attending.
Continuing the defense
Though it was not a budget year in Minnesota, the Coalition was alarmed to hear of a last-minute attempt to cut AGRI funding, including the Farm to School equipment grant, the Good Food Access Campaign and Urban Agriculture support programs, in the proposed supplemental budget at the end of the session.
Partners from the Minnesota Farm to School and Early Care Coalition, the Good Food Access Campaign and Urban Agriculture quickly mobilized to mount a response.
The three groups urgently asked for the public to mount a call-in campaign, focusing on legislators in the conference committee and the Governor’s office, who would decide whether the cuts would go forward. The request was sent to their lists and partner organizations who shared it broadly.
Partners also created a joint sign-on letter to protest the cuts and, in just three days, collected signatures from 70 organizations to protect Farm to School and Early Care, the Good Food Access Campaign and Urban Agriculture support programs.
Together, the groups organized a Walking Celebration of Good Food rally event at the Capitol on May 17, where attendees hand-delivered the sign-on letter to the Governor’s office and all members of the conference committee.
On May 23rd, we organized a large group meeting with Extension leadership to discuss ways to support farmers.
One policy priority in our bill is the creation of Extension positions to support farmers in navigating the process of selling to institutions. We decided to pursue the creation of these positions through Extension directly, in addition to advocating for their creation through legislation. Coinciding with the beginning of Extension’s budget process, more than 25 stakeholders from organizations around the state attended this meeting and highlighted farmer support needs to the Dean and Associate Dean of Extension, who expressed enthusiasm and gratitude for the conversation and a desire to stay connected going forward.
An important victory
Farm to School advocates had been discussing the idea of formal Farm to School Coordinator positions in either the Department of Education or Agriculture since at least 2012, but a stronger push to establish formal support in MDE grew starting in 2014.
After four years, MDE expanded the position description of one of its Child Nutrition Specialists to formally act as the Farm to School point person in relation to the National School Lunch Program. This person represents MDE on the Minnesota Farm to School Leadership Team, is the lead for questions about Farm to School and NSLP, shares Farm to School expertise in conference presentations, trainings and meetings, develops an understanding of local and regional food procurement issues and works with various partners to identify and promote farm to school.
This formal support for Farm to School is a huge win for Minnesota’s Farm to School and Early Care movement and fulfills one of the top goals outlined in the Coalition’s policy priorities.
With partners from a range of Minnesota public health, food and farming advocacy groups, members of the Minnesota Farm to School and Early Care Coalition hosted a Governor Candidate Forum on July 30th.
Significant organizing was done to increase attendance and ensure a diverse audience was able to access candidates and share their priorities. More than 180 community members preregistered and 235 attended the event. Follow-up engagement with candidates is being planned as the general election approaches.