Farm to School at the Legislature: Good News & Bad News

During the 2019 session of the Minnesota Legislature, the Land Stewardship Project has been working with a large stakeholder group to push for "Farm to School" provisions to be included in the final Agriculture Finance Bill. What we are asking for is a very clear prescriptive grant program to reimburse schools and early care centers for their purchases of local foods. We are also asking for a Farm to School staff position to be created within the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA).

Earlier this month, the House and Senate versions of the Agriculture Finance Bills were released. Here is where Farm to School stands in each bill:

House Agriculture Omnibus Bill

1) The bill includes money for two new positions in the MDA for international and domestic marketing, and listed "Farm to School" in the description of what one of these positions would do.

• This is new, and a big win!

• Funding for the overall House Agriculture Finance Bill matches Governor Tim Walz's budget, although his budget did not specifically name "Farm to School" as a priority.

• During legislative testimony, MDA Commissioner Thom Petersen expressed appreciation for these positions, and he explicitly mentioned Farm to School as an “important piece” for the agency.

2) In the money given to the MDA for the fund called “AGRI,” $450,000 was earmarked for Farm to School, and “reimbursement” was listed as one of the possible uses for this. The MDA already has a Farm to School AGRI grant program for school kitchen equipment upgrades that it, on its own from AGRI money, budgeted $400,000 for last year (it spent almost $380,000 of that).

• While not the new and separate grant program we had requested in our bill, this is a $50,000 increase towards Farm to School and Early Care in AGRI, and represents the first time reimbursement for local purchases is explicitly outlined. Farm to School and Early Care is also explicitly identified with a dollar amount—although it is written as “up to” this amount, instead of listed as one of several possible programs to fund without an amount attached.

• The MDA would have discretion in how to administer this grant funding. MDA officials have indicated to us that they had checked in on this and want to work with us to determine how it would be administered and what it would look like.

• The amount available would potentially allow us to pilot a reimbursement program to gather data we could build on in future sessions.

Senate Agriculture Omnibus Bill

1) No new language was created to support Farm to School. In the possible uses of AGRI funding, Farm to School is listed as it was in previous years, which is what allowed the MDA to create the AGRI kitchen equipment grants. It earmarks most of the AGRI money to other uses, so would probably leave less money for MDA to spend on its current grants.

2) No marketing positions were created in the Senate version.

Analysis

Neither bill has what we were exactly asking for. The Senate provided nothing for Farm to School and possibly sets back the current support Farm to School and Early Care receives through the equipment grants. The House bill does include a Farm to School staff position and does open up the possibility for MDA to create some kind of test program or pilot of a reimbursement grant. This was put in the legislation in response to our efforts. While not all we want, it is a step forward that is worth us fighting to get into the final bill that will be sent to the Governor.

Both the House and Senate versions of the Agriculture Finance Bills await passage through their respective chambers. After the bills are passed, a conference committee of Senators and Representatives will be appointed to reconcile the differences and come up with an overall compromise bill.

At this point, the House version is the best we can get, so we need to demonstrate our support for that bill and make sure it is fought for when it goes to the conference committee.

When the conference committee is announced during the next few weeks, LSP will be issuing action alerts that will provide guidance on how to let lawmakers know we need to support the Farm to School initiative in the House Agriculture Finance Bill. Stay tuned...

LSP organizer Ben Anderson can be reached at 612-722-6377 or via e-mail.

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