New bill would make it easier for schools to feed kids fresh, local foods

Getting kids food fresh from the farm is harder than you might think.

Getting kids food fresh from the farm is harder than you might think. Leila Navidi, Star Tribune

On the surface, serving fresh, local produce to students instead of relying on big-name food delivery companies doesn’t seem too complicated. Farmers need to sell food, kids need to eat fruits and vegetables.

But those massive food delivery companies are cheaper, and they’re more convenient. Community food systems don’t have the economy of scale or the infrastructure to make it easy for cash-strapped schools to use them.

So, a pair of bipartisan Minnesota legislators -- Northfield Democratic Rep. Todd Lippert and Red Wing Republican Senator Michael Goggin -- are trying to tip the scales in Minnesota farms’ favor with a new bill.

The legislation would set aside a $2 million annual grant program to reimburse schools and early child care providers for getting food from local providers. Both schools and farmers would also get the technical assistance required to make this relationship work -- like complying with food safety ordinances, sticking to federal food guidelines, or even figuring out how to prepare available veggies for elementary school kids.

It’s a no-brainer for Lippert and Goggin to take this one on. Lippert considers himself “a more rural legislator,” he says. He grew up in a small Iowa town, and he devotes a lot of his time to agricultural issues and protecting local farmers, who have taken a hit after the Trump administration’s trade tariffs cut off their Chinese customer base. (The United States sold about 33 million tons of soybeans to China in 2017).

Goggin, meanwhile, lives in Red Wing, where, he told MPR News, about half the students in the local school district qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. This kind of legislation, he said, is “something that’s needed” to get those kids as much fresh, nutritious food as possible.

Lippert considers it a win-win. Local farmers get more business, schools get fresher, healthier food – and they eat more of it, too. Farm-to-school programs increased student meal participation between 3 and 16 percent. More kids are willing to try healthier foods -- around a serving more a day, in fact -- when those foods are fresh from the farm.

It’s a win-win-win when you count Minnesota’s economy. A 2017 study from the National Farm to School Network estimated that each dollar invested in farm to school stimulates anywhere between $0.60 and $2.16 of local economic activity.

A similar bill was attempted back in 2017, and it passed both the House and the Senate, but it never made it into the final spending bill. Lippert feels good about their chances this year, especially with the help of his Republican colleague in the Senate.

“People recognize how important this is,” he says. “It’s good for local farmers, and it’s good for our children.”