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Legislators decide to fund farm-to-school initiative

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Kindergartner Tamryn eats cantaloupe during lunch.
Kindergartner Tamryn eats cantaloupe during lunch at Bancroft Elementary School on Feb. 7, 2019.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

In the lengthy set of budget bills passed over the weekend, there's a small victory for Minnesota school lunches and Minnesota farmers.

Erin McKee has spent years lobbying for a program that would help schools buy more of their food from local farmers. She works for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and she is happy about how things ended this session.  

"This is a really big deal and a big win for Minnesota — for our kids, for our farmers and our communities," McKee said.  

Earlier this session, her group asked for $2 million to fund an annual grant program to reimburse schools and early child care providers who use local foods. It also asked for a full-time farm-to-school coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture — someone who could help schools and farmers connect.

What came through in the final omnibus agriculture policy bill was much less. There is a $400,000 fund that can be used to reimburse schools that purchase local foods. And there will also be a person at the state Agriculture Department tasked with helping farmers and schools connect, but doing so will be only a part of that person's job.

McKee described this as the best possible outcome.

"The amount of money is not enough that we can have a full scale program," she said. "It's basically enough for us to do a pilot program. This is a very smart strategy to make sure that we don't just jump in and bite off more than we can chew before we figure out the best way to implement the program."

She hopes advocates can iron out the logistics of establishing local farm-to-school supply chains and then come back to the Legislature later to ask for more funding. She said similar approaches have been successful in Oregon and Michigan.