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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Minnesota Schools "Digging" Their Local Farmers This Week

Public News Service-MN

MINNEAPOLIS - From sporting bib overalls and "I Dig My Farmer" shirts, to corn-shucking contests, to hosting lunch with a local farmer, schools across Minnesota are celebrating Farm to School Week. In addition to teaching children about where their food comes from, Farm to School initiatives play an important role in kids' health, according to JoAnne Berkenkamp, program director for local foods with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

"For many students, obesity and diet-related health risks are a very substantial concern, so supporting those healthier eating habits is really critical. And we know it's important to reach kids early in life and to introduce them to a wide range of healthy food choices."

She says keeping the food dollar local also boosts local economies, and supports small and mid-sized farms.

More than 70 Minnesota school districts have adopted Farm to School initiatives, and more are expected to sign on this school year. Berkenkamp says parents can get involved by volunteering at their children's school cafeterias or school gardens, visiting farmer's markets, and reinforcing healthy eating habits at home by providing fresh, local foods.

She says school districts of any size or capacity can incorporate the program. Many smaller districts have started with something as simple as fresh apples.

"Apples are great, because they are a product that we know that is associated here with Minnesota agriculture. They're less perishable, and apples tend to be a little bit easier for schools to handle."

When Dover-Eyota Schools got involved with Farm to School three years ago, they began with apples and gradually added a range of locally-grown vegetables. Beginning this week, they will introduce local, free-range turkey, says Carrie Frank, food and nutrition director for the district.

"This excites me – the opportunity to buy local, to buy the freshest. I've been in schools now for 17 years, and I don't know when I've been more excited to be in the industry."

Frank calls Farm to School "a real community builder," as kids learn more about where their food comes from. One of the local farmers from whom she buys has children in the school district.

"The students are quite proud of it. I hear comments like, 'My mom grew this.' Or one child said, 'My grandfather and I picked this.'"

Last year, the high school agriculture class partnered with an area farmer to plant a small orchard on school grounds. Frank calls it a great learning tool - one that will, eventually, be another source of fresh food for the district.

** American Heart Association is coordinating with organizations across the state to strengthen Farm to School programs through our support of the Statewide Health Improvement Program. **

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