Farm to School on the way

The nice thing about being one of the last states to try something is the ability to learn from those that went ahead of you. Building North Dakota into a "Farm to School state," as North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring proposed in ...

The nice thing about being one of the last states to try something is the ability to learn from those that went ahead of you. Building North Dakota into a "Farm to School state," as North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring proposed in September, is a good example of this.

"I'm hoping to play catch-up quite quickly here," says Sue Balcom, local foods marketing specialist at the North Dakota Department of Agriculture. "I know there's some stuff going on out there. We just need to find out who's doing it, and then maybe use them as pilot schools to get everybody on board."

The program

Farm to School programs, which encourage or require that school districts purchase locally grown foods to serve in their cafeterias, are active in every state except North Dakota, South Dakota and Nevada.

Goehring's announcement three months ago that the agriculture department would pursue a program in North Dakota gave Balcom the clearance she needed to go ahead with several initiatives regarding locally grown foods. To her, Farm to School was just a matter of educating people about it.


"We've been talking about local foods and we've got people here and there that are gardening and going to farmer's markets," she says. "But once we said that we were going to do a Farm to School program and work with the youth, we've had lots of interest."

She says that since then, mothers have been "coming out of the woodwork," wanting to support their children having access to the healthy, locally grown foods in their school cafeterias.

Top-down approach

One of the challenges Balcom faces has to do with assumptions food service personnel make about the way they have to buy their food products.

"I'm finding that there are a lot of people that are interested in doing this, but there is somebody that is putting the fear of God in these institutions," she says.

She suspects that the buyers don't think that they can buy local produce because they think state health inspectors may frown on the idea, even if the foods have been donated.

"We have to start pretty much up at the top and change some of the rules about how they procure their commodities and where the money is being spent," Balcom says.

She plans to work with the North Dakota Department of Health to find a reasonable approach to the problem. If, for example, a retirement community cafeteria could be allowed to serve locally grown potatoes or pinto beans, their diners likely would appreciate the value of such produce.


"A lot of the food service people there say they would love to be able to accept the produce that's donated to them," she says. "Their clients all grew up with gardens and they appreciate this."

Balcom says she knows of several school districts that have told their food service buyers that they should try to buy locally grown produce first, even if it costs a little bit more.

"That's what we're working on," she says. "We gotta have those kinds of attitudes."

She intends to uncover that kind of support by surveying potential allies.

"We're preparing a survey that will be sent out in the near future for all the food service directors so we can get a little background information," she says, adding that the approach is modeled after successful surveys conducted in Minnesota and Montana.


Having a school board that is willing to pay a little more for better lunch menus for their students is a good first step. But Balcom says they also may have to allow purchasers more time (at greater expense) to acquire local foods for their schools.

"It does take a little bit more time to acquire products from a farmer than it does to order them off a sheet," she says.


She also is up against one of the stronger trends in rural America: shopping out of town. She says she wants to initiate economic development in those smaller communities and get people to start purchasing in their own towns again.

"It really goes much further than just produce and things like that," she says.

The new farm bill directs U.S. Department of Agriculture to commit about $50 million toward increasing local foods in school lunches, she says. But federal money comes with federal stipulations. Balcom may have to contend with UDSA food service guidelines for public school lunch programs.

"One of the problems is that USDA says if you are going to serve an apple, it has to be a U.S. No. 2 grade apple," she says. "That means if it's a quarter of an inch too small, they won't get their federal reimbursement. It's so complicated."

There is no state certification program of which she is aware, but notes that the Minot, N.D., health district has begun issuing a stamp of approval to local growers. They are certifying the producer and not the produce, and it may be that this approach becomes more prevalent, given the alternative.

"Any time you accept federal funds you have to play by their rules," she says.


Balcom is counting on learning from those that have gone before her. Among the lessons learned is, appropriately, the importance of education.


"I've only been in this position for a year and a couple months, and we've made great strides, I think, in getting people's awareness up there," she says. "But it's a huge education process."

The next best lesson may be patience. Iowa has had a Farm to School program for 10 years, and Balcom says it just recently has begun to show an increase in the percentage of locally grown foods as part of the overall food purchases. Hopefully, North Dakota schools will see quicker results.

"I'm aware of several schools that have already started implementing the practice of purchasing from locals," she says.

For now, it's about finding other North Dakotans who are interested in Farm to School.

"We're trying to find people who are really interested in local foods," she says. "So if we have a producer that's interested in ramping up production, we can say, 'You know, the people in your area are very interested in local foods.'"

2010 goal

Balcom's goal for 2010 is have North Dakota implement its first Farm to School programs.

"We're going to target three schools and try to get them up and running, so by next year, we hope to have a minimum of three schools really working on Farm to School," she says. "And as many other schools as we can get started on it, we will."


Her prime candidates for the first few slots include Gackle, Grand Forks, Jamestown, Minot and Valley City.

"That would be a good possibility, even though they don't know that yet," she says with a chuckle. "But we need to find the people that are willing to take the time to do this."

Also coming in 2010 is the Pride of Dakota School Lunch Day on March 23, which features only North Dakota products on school lunch menus.

"That's an opportunity for schools to, one day out of the year, see what they can source locally," Balcom says.

What To Read Next
Get Local