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Farm to School is growing in Duluth

Contributed by: Renee Willemsen, Duluth Farm to School CoordinatorRenee Willemsen with students from Duluth learning about vegetables.
Renee Willemsen with students from Duluth learning about vegetables.

The Three C’s, Cafeteria, Classrooms & Community is definitely a pinnacle guiding point for Duluth Farm to School, with Community Collaborations playing a huge factor. Duluth District was one of the collaborating partners in a USDA Farm to School Grant in which the Carlton-Cook-Lake-St. Louis County Community Health Board received $99,750 to “advance farm to school policy, systems, and environmental change in the region through district-to-district and Wolf Ridge ELC collaboration in 2015.” As the grant was ending, Duluth Farm to School was looking for sustainable programming sources.

Working with public health practitioners, a case was built for using community benefit dollars to fund a part-time farm to school coordinator position along with some supply, travel, and professional development funds. Section 9007 of the Affordable Care Act requires that tax-exempt hospitals conduct a Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) and implementation strategy every three years through work “with public health agencies and community partners to assess community health needs, plan how to address these needs, and provide community benefits.” Data about obesity, social determinants of health, students’ fruit and vegetable intake, nutrition education and staffing gaps, along with the impact of farm to school initiatives in remedying health disparities in the Duluth area were all components in building the case for support. Essentia Health responded to the request and agreed to fund the position. Today, Renee Willemsen, the Farm to School Coordinator, funded through the hospital’s community benefit dollars and housed as a contractor position through the public health department, works with schools to support and help develop school gardens, incorporate local food procurement into school meals, and develop robust nutrition education initiatives.

School garden at Duluth Public Schools. Photo: Renee Willemsen
School garden at Duluth Public Schools. Photo: Renee Willemsen
“Essentia Health is pleased to partner with the Duluth Farm to School program to improve health in our community. We know that health happens in the community, not just inside hospital/clinic buildings. We have a strong focus on addressing the social and environmental factors that influence health, such as healthy food access. The Farm to School program is a unique opportunity to influence youth and build life-long habits that support health,” Emily Anderson, Director Community Health at Essentia Health.

Students at Duluth Public Schools participate in their garden
Students at Duluth Public Schools participate in their garden

The part-time position is cyclical in nature. The winter months are spent assessing needs and goals, as well as writing grant proposals to fund initiatives. For instance, Garden Food Safety training was identified as a need that would also benefit system and environment changes to enable more incorporation of school garden grown produce. Renee connected with University of Minnesota Extension Food Safety Trainers, which lead to Duluth participating with other partners in a grant-funded pilot program to provide more statewide training for youth & school gardens and the development of templates and resources to aid this process. To increase the likelihood of teacher participation in the training, Renee secured funds from a local foundation, Lloyd K. Johnson Foundation, to provide substitute coverage. As a result close to 30 educators along with after-school staff & community organizations completed the garden food safety training.

Students at Duluth Public Schools participate in a lesson about plants. Photo: Renee Willemsen
Students at Duluth Public Schools participate in a lesson about plants. Photo: Renee Willemsen
Spring involves working with school sites to help plan school gardens and find creative solutions for grade-level curriculum integration. Renee is always looking for ways to leverage existing programs, connect the dots, and creatively incorporate gardening given Duluth’s shorter outdoor growing season. For instance, the pre-existing Tomato Man and One Vegetable, One Community projects, were wrapped into grade-level science lessons. Collaborating with St. Louis County Master Gardeners, local greenhouses and Plant Science High School students, close to 440 Kindergartners recently learned about parts of a seed, how plants grow and will record observations this summer in journals while growing the tomatoes they started from seeds. As first graders, many of the students will continue math and science lessons using data collected over the summer and have the opportunity to showcase their plant or produce in school harvest festivals. Similarly, close to 1500 2nd grade and after-school students learned all about Rutabagas, the Duluth Community Garden’s Vegetable of the Year, and will be growing their own plants this summer as part of the One Vegetable, One Community program. Partnering with Duluth Community Garden, a Minnesota Department of Agriculture in the Classroom Grant, provided funds for the development of an educational video (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=BRSOwd4Qqu8), planting & tasting supplies. As part of the introduction to rutabaga, students got to sample locally grown, roasted rutabagas. 2nd grade teacher Joan McDonnell shared, “22 of my 27 students LOVED the roasted rutabagas...not liked, LOVED! They were very surprised by the flavor. Other classes had the same results! It was a very, very fun experience and the kids are excited about growing their rutabaga.”

Student at Duluth Public Schools waters garden
Student at Duluth Public Schools waters garden
The summer is primarily spent out in the field either working directly with students or helping coordinate supplies and resources at other sites. “In addition to continuing existing programs at 5 schools, Renee is excited to launch the Minnesota Arboretum’s Children’s in Residence Curriculum in collaboration with the University of Minnesota Extension’s Master Gardening & SNAP Education at 3 schools in Duluth this summer! It’s taken a lot of planning and coordination and will provide so many opportunities for outdoor explorations in the gardens, while also offering engaging, hands-on nutrition and science lessons.

Cafeteria taste tests, lessons in the gardens, coordination of a 7th grade Life Science Farm Field Trip are all part of the mix in the fall. It’s a busy time of the year and Renee loves hearing the reports of 3rd graders eating 5 helpings of salad after harvesting their Parts of a Plant Salad during their plant structures lessons; cafeteria managers reporting that when they post the Harvested from School Garden Sign not an ounce of produce is left; or 8th graders sharing with Renee in Health Class a year after their 7th grade Farm Field trip some of the many ways we can eat local foods year round even in Duluth: freezing, drying, growing storage crops, and extending growing seasons with greenhouses(https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=2BEZkE_dDVY).

Students at Duluth Public Schools participate in their garden
Students at Duluth Public Schools participate in their garden
Incorporating more local foods into the cafeterias continues to be a goal. Perhaps with a new Eco-Entrepreneurial Program at Lake Superior College, creative solutions for processing and transportation barriers can be overcome. Renee has learned it requires the right timing, connections and creative problem solving. Sometimes you have to go slow, to go far. One thing is for sure, Duluth Farm to School continues to cultivate and inspire Duluth youth.

Learn more about Supporting Farm to School with Non-Profit Hospital Community Benefit Dollars (source: National Farm to School Network):

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