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Addressing food system challenges

Time is ripe for farm to school

Two kids smiling while eating their school lunch

Minnesota's farm to school programs, with Extension as a key partner, build healthy, sustainable communities.

The timing has never been better for the farm to school movement. One out of three children are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National health care costs continue to rise, fueled in part by more total cases of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

In an effort to improve child health, new federal guidelines for school meals will begin to take effect during the 2012-13 academic year. The revamped standards call for twice as many fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and less sodium for school breakfasts and lunches.

In Minnesota, Extension and many key partners are working to ensure farm to school continues to grow.

"Our goal is to provide as many school-age children as possible with the chance to eat and learn about fresh, local foods," says Stephanie Heim, Extension farm to school educator. "We want to reinforce healthy eating habits at a young age to ensure they are carried into adulthood. At the same time, farm to school keeps more food dollars close to home and helps support farmers."

Extension bolsters statewide efforts by educating students, school food-service staff and farmers—and by building the capacity for farm to school in Minnesota communities. "We work with community members to address unique challenges in their areas," Heim says.

A new documentary by Extension, the Minnesota Department of Health and Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) explores the economic advantages and remaining challenges for farm to school. The story is told through interviews with Minnesota farmers, school administrators, food service staff and others.

The documentary aims to spark conversation about food-system challenges and new approaches to economic development. It first aired on TPT in March, and can be viewed online and at special regional screenings across Minnesota.

For more information on farm to school, the documentary and regional screenings, visit Farm to School.

Putting food insecurity on the map

Food assistance is available for low-income individuals and families, but many in need don't know they are eligible or are too proud to ask for assistance. Of those Minnesotans who are eligible for food assistance, now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), only 65 percent apply, according to the USDA. That includes just 41 percent of eligible seniors. The result? Meals that are woefully inadequate or skipped altogether.

The problem worsens in food deserts— low-income communities without easy access to healthy, reasonably priced food. St. Louis County, for example, is home to some 30,000 low-income individuals, many who live in rural areas west of Duluth and must travel more than 10 miles for the groceries they need to put a healthy meal on the table.

Recently, Extension partnered with the University of Minnesota Duluth and Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank to pilot a Geographic Information System (GIS) project. The goals were to map areas of food insecurity—where people lack access to enough food to meet their basic needs—and provide a more complete picture of available resources.

The pilot included the development of a robust database that adds insight to federal and state data. Information includes locations and hours of grocery stores, food shelves, soup kitchens, farmers markets and community gardens. The ongoing project will identify gaps in the county's food-security safety net.

"It's really about better health," says Betsy Johnson, Extension health and nutrition educator, adding that people in rural areas are challenged to find nutrient-rich fresh produce with the north's shorter growing season. "Unfortunately, nutrient-empty, processed food is more widely available."

Johnson says the GIS project will help partners match needs to resources more efficiently. "Through Extension's Simply Good Eating nutrition education program—and in partnership with Second Harvest—we can help overcome many barriers to better health and nutrition."

For more information, visit Nutrition Education.

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