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U of M study estimates farm-to-school's local economic impact

Filling school lunch trays with fresh, locally grown foods that are easy to incorporate into school menus can contribute as much as $430,000 annually to a regional economy, according to new research from University of Minnesota Extension.

The recent study examined the potential economic impact of farm-to-school programs, focusing on a five-county area of central Minnesota that encompasses Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties. Students attending schools in the region total 20,840, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

"In this part of Minnesota, a $400,000 annual impact could support two to three full-time farms," said Ryan Pesch, Extension community economics educator and co-author of the report.

The range of economic impact in the region varied greatly depending on the schools' level of involvement -- from $20,000 if every school featured one locally grown meal per month up to $430,000 if they sourced a large amount of certain products from local farmers. The analysis concentrated on foods most easily added to school menus right away and available from local farmers: apples, beef hot dogs, cabbage, carrots, oatmeal, potatoes, sweet corn and wild rice.

"We learned that the cost to process fresh fruits and vegetables is the most significant barrier for farmers and school districts wanting to forge ahead with these activities," said Pesch. "It takes time and labor to process fresh produce, and most growers understand the budget restraints schools are under. At the same time, local farmers find it challenging to meet the wholesale prices of large-scale distributors, although they are cost competitive on select foods."

According to Stephanie Heim, Extension farm to school coordinator and a registered dietitian, the study's findings will help inform the efforts of many other Minnesota communities looking to start farm-to-school programs.

"Parents, teachers, any community members looking to support local farm-to-school efforts can help by connecting farmers with the schools in their communities," said Heim. "A strong relationship between farmers and schools is the foundation for building programs that last."

Arlene Jones, who runs an 80-acre farm in Crow Wing County, agrees that growing local connections plays a huge part in the progress of farm to school. "So much of it depends on the school district size, farm size and storage and delivery systems," Jones said. "Does the farmer own a refrigerated truck? Schools and farmers must work together to create a model they can use in order for it to be successful."

The study was a joint project of University of Minnesota Extension, the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture and University of Minnesota Department of Applied Economics. To access a report and fact sheet on the farm-to-school study, visit

For more information on farm to school or how to get started, visit Extension's Farm to School website,