The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 30, 2013

Benefits harvested from food program

Why it matters: Healthier foods and an economy boost make the Farm to School program worthwhile.

The Mankato Free Press

---- — Fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t the only things growing when it comes to the Farm to School program.

More and more schools are realizing the benefits of the school lunch program that incorporates locally grown food into its menus. When the Minnesota Department of Agriculture launched the program in 2006, fewer than 20 schools were buying from local farmers. By 2011, the number grew to 145 schools.

That increased participation is good news for students. There is a link between healthy eating and learning. State officials say the Farm to School programs have been shown to increase the number of fruits and vegetables that kids eat by one daily serving.

Along with feeding young people better food, there is an economic benefit of keeping local dollars in the community as the schools buy produce from local farmers.

And the state is putting its money where its mouth is. In the next state budget $500,000 has been allocated for this program to continue with plans of doubling the number of participating schools.

Area schools not in the program should seriously consider participation. Grants are being made available to help schools, and the next round of applications due in November. Up to 50 percent of equipment purchases and up to 75 percent of feasibility study costs may be covered by the grants with schools making up the difference.

In this region, the Lafayette Charter School received a $10,500 Farm to School grant to purchase a steamer, salad bar, microwave oven, and food processor to increase storage and preparation of locally grown produce and meats. The grant included a $5,270 Minnesota Department of Agriculture contribution and a $2,638 matching grant from the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota.

In Lafayette, participation in the program is about more than plunking a fresh apple on kids’ plates at lunchtime. The students are involved in actually growing the food with a school garden that produces an array of fresh vegetables. So not only are students gaining nutritionally, but they also are getting lessons in agriculture, business and teamwork. In addition, the school has strong community support with numerous volunteers helping with the gardening.

Some school districts are hesitant to commit to buying local produce because of the expense. But state officials say that many have found creative ways to overcome the cost barrier by including the Department of Defense Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program or selling local foods ala carte for a higher price.

Some schools reported that the increase in meals sold after introduction of the program helped increase revenue. In Mankato with the Minnesota Valley Action Council establishing local food hub to buy and distribute local produce, it should be much easier for schools to get their hands on the local food.

In this area, where growers are around the corner from schools, participating in the Farm to School program makes a lot of sense.