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Challenges and opportunities to grow the Minnesota Farm to School movement

Locally grown apples and strawberries in a school cafeteria

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Farm to School initiatives connect students with fresh, locally grown foods and support farmers in their communities through:

  • Serving local food in meals, snacks or taste tests.
  • Food and farming education, including cooking and agriculture education, field trips to farms or farmers markets, imaginary play, food and farm-related books, and more.
  • Gardening, including indoor, outdoor and container gardening.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) has supported Farm to School efforts locally and nationally since 2007. Our work has included training for K-12 school staff and farmers, creation of supportive resources, promotion, outreach, research and policy advocacy. Along with 10 other member organizations, IATP is part of the MN Farm to School Leadership Team, which works through partnerships across Minnesota to build Farm to School initiatives that help kids eat healthy, support nearby farmers, foster economic vitality and strengthen communities. 

Fourth-graders participate in a corn-husking activity at Five Hawks Elementary School in Prior Lake during Farm to School Month.

Fourth-graders participate in a corn-husking activity at Five Hawks Elementary School in Prior Lake during Farm to School Month.

Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School Grant Program

Grant Program History

This report is being prepared as part of IATP’s activities evaluating the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s (MDA) Farm to School grant program. MDA’s grants supporting Farm to School activities launched in 2013, with early grants providing funding to K-12 schools for planning and reimbursement for purchases of kitchen equipment to prepare local ingredients. This key grant support helped grow the fledgling movement of Farm to School supporters in the state, and demand and interest in the Farm to School grants have continued to increase since. 

Starting in the fall of 2014, a broad group of Minnesota stakeholders supporting Farm to School at the K-12 level and Farm to Early Care initiatives serving children 0-5 years old came together to discuss what programs were needed to advance and expand Farm to School and Early Care throughout the state. This diverse Stakeholder Group included staff members from organizations and state agencies representing agriculture, small business, public health and nutrition, academic research, education, healthy food access, anti-hunger, rural development and more. This group agreed that grants offering direct reimbursement to schools and early care providers for their food purchases from local farms — which had proven successful in several other states — would be an excellent complement to MDA’s existing Farm to School grant program. Additionally, the need for staff positions to support training and technical assistance for Farm to School and Early Care was recognized as key to success. The Stakeholder Group worked over several legislative sessions to advance these priorities, and in 2019, they were able to support the passage of a bill to establish legislative directive and funding for MDA to reimburse for local food purchases through the current program, as well as create an MDA Regional Marketing Specialist position with one-third of the specialist’s time dedicated to supporting Farm to School. 

In the summer of 2020, MDA pivoted to administer a modified “Rapid Response” grant to quickly respond to community needs during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic-related supply chain disruptions, providing planning, kitchen equipment and milk cooler grants, including both early care and K-12 schools as eligible applicants. In Fiscal Year (FY) 2021, MDA was able to implement the Farm to School reimbursement grant as planned, awarding over $290,000 to reimburse schools for purchases from Minnesota farms. IATP and the University of Minnesota Extension published an evaluation report analyzing the economic impact, grant administration and grantee successes and challenges of the first year of the reimbursement model of the grant. In FY2022, funding for the popular program was increased to award over $740,000, and in FY2023, grant funding was increased significantly to over $4.2 million, due to a one-time infusion of federal funding to MDA through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Local Food for Schools (LFS) program

Grant funds are now used to reimburse both the purchase of local food and kitchen equipment. Grantees are currently continuing to spend down grant funds from FY2022 and FY2023, and future reports will examine implementation of these rounds of grants. Funding for FY2024 is lower than FY2023 without the boost of federal dollars; however, after the 2023 legislative session, state funding has increased to nearly $1 million. Additionally, after continued advocacy by stakeholders, in 2023 a bill was passed to support creating a full time Farm to Institution Coordinator position at MDA, significantly boosting capacity to support farmers, schools and early cares interested in starting or expanding Farm to School and Early Care activities. Another significant change coming out of the 2023 legislative session is expanded eligibility for the grants: For FY2024, MDA included center-based early cares serving preschool-age children in addition to K-12 schools, previously the only eligible applicants. 

Table 1. Minnesota Department of Agriculture Farm to School Grant Funding and Awards, FY2013-FY2023. 


Target funding amount

Amount requested

Amount awarded

Number of applications

Number of grantees














































$154, 612





















*Fiscal Year 2023 includes $800,000 in state funding and $3.45 million in federal funding through the USDA, administered through the MDA Farm to School grant program in Minnesota. 

Nearly every year that MDA Farm to School grants have been awarded, requests for funding and the number of applications have exceeded available funding and the number of awards administered. As mentioned above, FY2023 data is an outlier due to the increase in federal funds for that year. It should be noted that the required matching funds for Full Tray grants were removed for FY2023 applications, which may have removed a barrier to apply for some schools. Across these 11 years, MDA awarded nearly $8 million in response to requests for nearly $11.5 million. 

Grant Intent and Implementation

As currently implemented, the MDA Farm to School and Early Care grant program supports Minnesota school districts and early care centers that want to begin or expand purchasing and serving Minnesota agricultural products in school meals. Public or private schools or school districts that participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and serve food to K-12 students, including school districts serving sovereign tribal nations, and early care centers that participate in the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) are eligible to apply. 

Schools and early care centers are free to use grant funds to boost their purchases from Minnesota producers in a variety of ways, including:

  • Trialing new Minnesota-grown products on the menu or through taste tests
  • Participating in the Great Lakes Apple Crunch
  • Hosting a Breakfast or Lunch with a Farmer meal
  • Increasing the number of times a Minnesota item or meal repeats on the menu
  • Expanding the number of featured items or meals during Farm to School and Early Care Month
  • Adding Minnesota Thursdays as a monthly feature to the menu

All the purchases schools and early care centers make for reimbursement must be directly for food grown or raised in Minnesota that was served as part of the school district or early care center’s meals for children. Grantees are allowed to purchase directly from farmers, through food hubs or distributors, from farmers markets, etc., as long as the food was grown and produced in Minnesota. Grantees are also encouraged to purchase Minnesota items for all components of the meal, including vegetables, fruits, meat, fish and poultry, eggs, grains and dairy products, excluding fluid milk. Since all milk served with school and early care meals is already local, reimbursing for fluid milk purchases would not meet the grant intent of increasing local Minnesota purchases and is not eligible for reimbursement. For FY23 grants, reimbursable items had to be unprocessed or minimally processed to meet USDA guidelines, while FY22 and FY24 grants allow for processed food items that are made in Minnesota and contain primarily Minnesota-grown or raised ingredients. For FY2023, MDA used the USDA definition of “unprocessed locally grown or locally raised agricultural products” as outlined by the federal government, which differed slightly from requirements from previous rounds of funding due to USDA requirements.

It is important for MDA to communicate the intent of the grant and outline eligible expenses to potential applicants to avoid common misunderstandings about allowable uses of funds. Ineligible uses of funds include purchases of items grown outside of Minnesota (for example, in neighboring states), purchases not meeting the definition of unprocessed or minimally processed, purchases related to gardening instead of buying food from Minnesota producers, and costs related to staff time or promotion and marketing of Farm to School and Early Care. 

MDA Harvest of the Month posters at a particpating school promote local foods.

MDA Harvest of the Month posters at a participating school promote local foods.

Types of MDA Farm to School and Early Care Grants

MDA’s Farm to School and Early Care grants are tiered into two levels, with an option to add on a request for kitchen equipment funding:

  • Farm to School and Early Care First Bite GrantsDesigned for schools and early care centers with little or no experience with local food procurement as part of a Farm to School or Early Care program, MDA’s Farm to School and Early Care First Bite Mini Grant offers smaller grants to help grantees test local procurement strategies and learn from their experiences. The application is simpler than the Full Tray Grant, with no requirement for letters of support or cash matching funds from the grantee. Grantees can only receive one First Bite Mini Grant before leveling up to the Full Tray Grant. First Bite grants for FY2023 were available for up to $10,000.  
  • Farm to School and Early Care Full Tray GrantsDesigned for schools and early care centers with some Farm to School or Early Care experience, MDA’s Full Tray grants offer a larger amount of money for grantees to build on their activities and expand their Farm to School and Early Care initiatives. The application asks for a more detailed work plan and requires at least one letter of support from a Minnesota producer who would benefit (with additional letters welcome from distributors, community members, etc.). Typically this grant level has also required a one-to-one cash match from the grantee; however, for FY2023, no match was required for Full Tray food funds, due to the larger amount of funding available through the USDA. The specific grant amount an applicant can apply for is calculated using the number of reimbursable meals served and a per-meal incentive of $0.10, up to a maximum Full Tray grant amount of $100,000 for FY2023. Schools were also permitted to indicate interest in "second helping" funds if funding was not fully expended through the initial round of grants.
  • Equipment Funds: MDA has also offered equipment funding grants to support schools and early care centers in purchasing kitchen equipment that will allow them to prepare their locally purchased food items. Applicants can add an equipment grant request to their application. In FY2023, equipment grants were available for up to $35,000, and a one-to-one cash match was required. 

At a Halloween Farm to School Month event, kitchen staff at Hutchinson Middle School show MDA Commissioner Thom Petersen and Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan kitchen eqipment purchased with a Farm to School grant.

At a Halloween Farm to School Month event, kitchen staff at Hutchinson Middle School show MDA Commissioner Thom Petersen and Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan kitchen equipment purchased with a Farm to School grant.

Grantee Selection

MDA’s practice is to convene a review committee to select the grantees from the pool of applicants. Each reviewer scores the applications individually using a defined rubric of selection criteria covering whether the proposed project would increase access to local foods, enhance the applicant’s Farm to School or Early Care program and increase purchases from emerging farmers, as well as rating whether their plan was sufficiently detailed and realistic to complete during the proposed time period. Full Tray applications also include letters of support and more detail on their budget plans. Reviewers’ numeric scores are combined by MDA, and the evaluation group meets in person or virtually to come to a consensus on funding recommendations to pass on to the MDA Commissioner for approval. 

Emerging Farmers

In the selection process, MDA prioritizes applicants that purchase Minnesota-grown and raised foods from “emerging farmers.” More detail on MDA’s definition of emerging farmers can be found here. Recent application processes include a question on whether and how applicants plan to purchase from emerging farmers, and applications can receive additional points for demonstrating ability to accomplish that plan. MDA has produced legislative reports documenting the Minnesota landscape for emerging farmers and recently developed additional guidance to support applicants with connecting to emerging farmers near them.

Snapshot of FY2023 MDA Farm to School Grantees

In the FY203 round of grants, MDA awarded 60 First Bite and 56 Full Tray Food Grants to schools throughout the state, with 45 of the 114 grantees adding on Farm to School Equipment Grants. (See Appendix A for the full list of FY2023 grantees and Appendix B for an interim economic impact and product mix purchase analysis from our partners at U of MN Extension.)

Figure 1. Fiscal Year 2023 Grant Recipients. 

Farm to School Food Grants: $3,458,752. 60 First Bite Grants: $496,762 Food. 56 Full Tray Grants: $2,961,990 Food. Farm to School Equipment Grants: 45 Equipment Grants: $769,788.

2023 Farm to School Survey: FY2023 Grantee School Feedback 

About this Survey

From 2008-11, IATP conducted four annual statewide Farm to School surveys of Minnesota school districts, collecting key data on activities being implemented, challenges, opportunities for growth and feedback on needed support. IATP shared our survey tool with USDA as they developed the national USDA Farm to School Census, which they began conducting on a biannual basis in 2013. Though the USDA Farm to School Census provides high-level information for each state, IATP and Leadership Team partners identified a need for more detailed information about the activities happening on the ground. In 2023, with a goal to better understand Farm to School activities in Minnesota and help inform future efforts, IATP worked with support from partners on the Leadership Team to conduct the first statewide Minnesota Farm to School survey of school districts in 12 years. 

This survey was created in collaboration with Leadership Team partners and administered online by the University of Minnesota Extension and IATP. The survey was promoted directly via email to the entire list of Minnesota school food service contacts and to previous MDA Farm to School grantees, with iterative reminders to those who had not yet filled it out. It was also shared through state departments, including the MN Farm to School Leadership Team newsletter and Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) bulletin for food service, to participants in the Minnesota Harvest of the Month program and to other Leadership Team members’ networks. Participation was voluntary, and we incentivized participation in the form of a gift card awarded through a random drawing of respondents. We conducted the survey in the spring of 2023 and received responses from 264 participants representing 204 Minnesota schools or districts. The majority of respondents were food service directors, though some administrators (20% of respondents) and a small number of teachers (7%) replied.

Though all Minnesota schools were invited to participate in the statewide survey, as part of our work evaluating the MDA Farm to School Grant Program and the experiences of its grantees, this report will focus on the subset of 97 survey respondents who were MDA Farm to School grantees in FY2023. Our partners from U of MN Extension have also prepared an overview summary examining Minnesota’s Farm to School market, analyzing survey responses from all 264 participants representing 204 schools or districts, including grantees and those who have not received MDA Farm to School grants (Appendix C). Additionally, IATP published a separate parallel report on results of a statewide survey examining Farm to Early Care in Minnesota

Of the 114 grantee districts who received a grant in FY2023, respondents from 77 districts responded, for a response rate of 67% of FY2023 MDA Farm to School Grantees. This analysis includes 97 responses, as several districts submitted responses from multiple staff. The survey included specific questions only asked to school nutrition staff from schools that receive MDA Farm to School grants. One-on-one and group conversations were conducted with engaged school food service staff to collect additional detail and feedback. 

This report provides a summary of findings, as well as key takeaways and opportunities for further support and expansion of Farm to School efforts in Minnesota. Throughout the report, figures are based on the number of respondents to each question. 

At a Halloween Farm to School Month event, kitchen staff at Hutchinson Middle School show MDA Commissioner Thom Petersen and Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan kitchen eqipment purchased with a Farm to School grant.

Cheryl Pick and Lori Landowski lead the Child Nutrition Services team at Foley Public Schools.

Survey Responses


The top grantee motivations for participating in Farm to School remained similar to past evaluation findings: supporting the local economy and a dedication to quality food. The top three motivations mentioned by school food service staff were: 

  • Support the local economy 
  • Fresher food
  • Higher quality food

Increased consumption of fruits and vegetables and knowing the source of the food were the next most common motivations. 

Connections with Local Growers and Local Food Purchases

Schools found farmers through a variety of means. By far the largest connection point was word of mouth, with 67 responses highlighting this method. The second most common response was “other schools/districts’ recommendation,” again highlighting the importance of word of mouth for building connections with farmers. 

There were also a variety of responses highlighting connections made through a local food hub, through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Minnesota Grown Wholesale Directory and through farmers’ markets. 

Figure 2. Connections with local growers: “How did you find or establish connection with your local growers? Check all that apply.” 

Bar graph. Word of mouth: 67. Other districts recommendations: 33. Through a local food hub: 26. MDA's wholesale directory: 23. Farmers market vendors: 19. Other: 15. Monthly farm to school office hours: 10.

Schools are sourcing their local products in a variety of ways, with purchasing directly from the farmer being the most popular method.

Table 2. Sourcing local products: “Where have you purchased or sourced locally-grown or raised foods? Check all that apply.” 


Number of responses

Individual Farm or ranch




School garden, community garden 


Food hub 


Farmers’ market


Grocery store




Catered meals 




Schools are positive about the quality of the local products they purchase. Approximately three-fourths of respondents rated the local food they had purchased as excellent quality, with the remaining quarter indicating good quality.

Figure 3. Local food quality: “Overall, how would you rate the quality of local foods you have used?”

Good: 26%; Excellent: 74%

When comparing local product purchases to non-local items, a little over half of schools perceive them as costing “somewhat more” per serving than non-local items, with 22% of respondents perceiving them as “about the same” and 21% as “significantly more.”

Figure 4. Local food cost perception. “On a cost-per-serving basis, how do local foods compare in comparison to non-local items?”

Highest response: "somewhat more"


School staff tour Loon Organics Farm in Hutchinson.

School staff tour Loon Organics Farm in Hutchinson.

Perceived Grant Impacts

Nearly all (98.%, or 71 of 72 of respondents) school staff responses indicated the MDA Farm to School grant program allowed them to purchase more local products for school meals and snacks than they would have purchased without the grant.

Increasing the variety of products served was another top impact: Increased variety of produce served in school meals was the top outcome enabled by the MDA Farm to School grants as noted by respondents. Respondents also noted that the grants enabled recipients to plan the purchasing of local products with greater certainty and increased their purchasing budgets.

Table 3. Perceived food service operation impacts: “Related to your food service operation, which of the following outcomes has the MDA Farm to School grant helped you to achieve/do you anticipate achieving? Select all that apply.”

Perceived impact

Number of responses

Increased variety of produce served in school meals


We can plan local product purchasing with greater certainty 


Food vendors and farmers are more willing to supply our food service program


We have better support from our farm and food vendors/partners


We have better support for school meals from the community 


Our purchasing power is enhanced 


Our food purchasing budget has increased 


Challenges to purchasing local foods are reduced 


The cooking skills of food service staff have improved 


Food waste has decreased 


Participation in school meals has increased 


Marketing menus is easier 


Our food service budget is more stable 


We are better able to meet school meal requirements 




Staff were also asked to respond to what extent they perceived certain impacts to be true for their school food service operation since receiving their MDA Farm to School grant. The most common responses with which schools “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” were regarding products and quality. Eighty percent or more of respondents agreed that since receiving their MDA grant, the quality of their food has improved, and they began offering new local products and more local vegetables.

Figure 5. Perceived impacts: “To what extent are each of the following impacts true for your school food service operation since receiving your MDA Farm to School grant?”

Figure 5

Schools are receiving positive feedback from their communities on their Farm to School activities. 

Figure 6. Farm to school feedback: “How would you describe the feedback you have received from the following people about your Farm to School activities?”

Figure 6

When asked for open feedback, schools had enthusiastic support for MDA’s Farm to School grant program overall. This is a selection of quotes from respondents:

  • Without the MDA Farm to School Grant, we would not be able to serve our locally-grown bison, which is a much healthier meat for our students to experience eating. Because of its expense, this grant has enabled us to serve this to our students. THANK YOU! It is great for the local producer, as well as our school community.
  • Everyone has been AMAZING to work with! Our students' eyes LIGHT UP when they see fresh foods on the serving lines. THANK YOU for everything. We are so so grateful!
  • Love the program and know it is imperative to improving everyone's health.
  • The Grants have been so helpful!
  • Farm to School has been a great experience all around for myself, students, staff and school.
  • It is a great program. ALL levels of food service are excited about our program and the meals are terrific.
  • We love Farm to School.
  • We love the fact that with the help of the F2S Grants we have expanded our farmers and are able to buy fruit and veggies varieties that we have not been able to buy, due to cost, in the past. This allows us to educate students and staff while giving students the chance to try a wide variety of products that they normally would not get the chance to eat.
  • It has overall been a great experience. I love supporting our farmers!
  • It is great to be able to support family farms that reside within our School District.
  • Being a farm kid raised on eating what we grew, I believe it is important that people know where their food comes from. It is exciting to see kids eating local products, knowing where it came from and loving the taste of it.
  • I have had a wonderful experience dealing with my farmers and producers.
  • I have been very lucky with my local farmers as they really work with me to get a quality product delivered to me.
  • We purchase wonderful ground beef and are happy to receive extra funds for help with that.
  • Love the program. It just takes a bit to get it up and running!
  • There is a lot of interest and momentum for growing food on site and for teaching kids about where food comes from!

Students in line for local foods in Prior Lake.

Students in line for local foods in Prior Lake.

Promotional Activities 

Schools noted a variety of promotional activities tied to their Farm to School efforts. Serving and promoting local foods topped the list. However, celebrating Farm to School Month and educating students about locally-grown foods were also common activities, highlighting that schools often tie local foods into a larger effort that goes beyond grant-related activities. Other promotional activities, such as the Minnesota Grown program and Minnesota Harvest of the Month, were popular.

Table 4. Promotional activities: “Which of the following activities has your school participated in during the past two years? Check all that apply.”

Promotional activity

Number of responses

Served local foods in meals, snacks, taste tests


Promoted local foods in schools


Hosted a special event or day related to food and farms


Conducted field trips to farms, gardens, or farmers markets


Held taste tests or cooking demonstrations 


Celebrated farm to school month 


Educated students about locally-grown foods


Had a school garden 


Other/none/not applicable



Pumpkin carving activity in Hutchinson.

Pumpkin carving activity in Hutchinson.

Farm to School Challenges

While respondents noted a variety of benefits and motivations, Farm to School efforts are not without challenges. Top barriers selected from a list of options by school staff included: 

  • Availability of products 
  • Budget constraints
  • Finding farmers to purchase from 

Inconvenience and procurement regulations or policies were the next most common barriers listed. In addition to the listed barriers, there were several write-in responses regarding time and kitchen staff training needs. Time barriers reflected a variety of tasks: time to gather bids, prep and process local foods, and coordinate additional orders and deliveries.

Schools were asked what logistical challenges they face in serving local foods in their meals. By far the most common challenges indicated were related to staff time and delivery and distribution. Over half of respondents indicated these three challenges as one of their top challenges. One-third of respondents named lack of equipment, lack of staff training and lack of cold storage as barriers. Written responses also indicated the challenges regarding lead time and lack of flexibility with timing.

Logistical Challenges:

  • Limited staff time to prepare local foods 
  • Delivery/distribution challenges to get local foods to school buildings

Respondents noted the short growing season as a challenge in procuring food for meals. They indicated a desire for increased processing support, which would support schools with limited processing capacity and allow schools with available cold storage to freeze and store items for later use. For example, items such as corn, broccoli, cauliflower and carrots could be processed during the summer and stored in freezers to use during the school year. Some schools are already doing this, but without processing support, other schools have limited capacity to implement this strategy.

Figure 7. Challenges: “What logistical challenges do you face in serving local foods in your food service program? Select all that apply.” 

Figure 7

This is a selection of open feedback quotes about the challenges of Farm to School from respondents:

  • Overall, we have been very successful. We do have the need for staff food prep and need to figure out how to capture produce and preserve it when it is in season. 
  • It's a good opportunity and has many bonuses, but nothing is without challenges, and they've yet to be worked out of the system. Meeting guidelines but having to rely on inconsistent or inexact delivery schedules is cumbersome.
  • It’s a good program, but a tedious application process for grants.
  • With the growing season ending at the start of the school year, I have found it a challenge to find local food items throughout the school year. 
  • In our community, there was not much availability of fresh produce before school closed for the summer. Hoping to get a lot more when we start school in the fall. We did get local ground beef and sausage patties to serve at our school that were very good.

Resources needed 

Schools were asked what resources would be most helpful in starting or expanding their Farm to School program. Respondents noted help connecting with farmers as the most desired support. They also expressed desire for Farm to School recipes and strategies for engaging students, the school and overall community. 

Top resources needed: 

  • Help connecting with farmers 
  • Farm to School recipes 
  • Strategies for engaging students, teachers, parents and community

Hands-on and introductory training, additional promotional resources and connections with other schools were also noted as top-desired resources. Respondents wrote in support for writing grant applications, the need for additional storage (including cold storage) and continued funding, as well as regional coordinator positions to support connecting with farmers in the area, as other needed areas of assistance.

Table 5. Desired supports: “What support or training would be most helpful in starting or expanding your Farm to School program? Check all that apply.”

Desired support

Number of responses

Help connecting with farmers


Farm to School recipes


Strategies for engaging students, teacher, parents and community


Introductory Farm to School 101 training for my staff


Additional Farm to School promotional resources


Hands-on food prep training for cooks (e.g., knife skills)


Help connecting with other schools who are doing Farm to School to share strategies


Farm to School webinars


Support for schools to apply for the MDA Farm to School Grant


Help connecting with the media




This is a selection of open feedback quotes on needed Farm to School supports from respondents:

  • A hub where growers can market and connect with school consumers would be excellent. Make the entry to the market simple and don't require too much time from growers. Make it something they can do from their smartphone. 
  • It's a wonderful program. Please make it possible to spend the grant money during summer months since that's the peak season in MN. 
  • Easier grant paperwork. We need more grants as local produce is much more expensive.
  • Great support for this. Would like to see commodity dollars be allocated to local. 
  • It would be great if a portion of our commodity entitlement could be utilized towards purchasing local products.
  • Our farmers want stable, reliable funding for the food reimbursement grants. Many are unsettled right now to know we will not have access to as much money to purchase local foods for the FY2024 cycle. Stable funding will encourage more farmers to lean into institutional sales as a model but until then, we have to beg and plead for their extras.

A locally-sourced lunch at Fond du Lac Ojibwe School.

A locally-sourced lunch at Fond du Lac Ojibwe School.


Since its inception in 2013, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) has awarded over $9.5 million through its Farm to School grant program, providing statewide support to boost school purchases from Minnesota farmers. Interest in and implementation of local purchasing for school meals has continued to increase over the last decade. Last year, MDA received a $3.5 million infusion of federal funding to support the Farm to School grant program, for a total of $4.25 million available to award in FY2023. Yet, demand from school districts still surpassed available funding, with applicants requesting $5.43 million. MDA’s program has grown from supporting just 13 grantees in FY2013 to its largest cohort ever of 114 grantees in FY2023. The one-year infusion of funding from USDA made this impressive grant round possible, but even without additional federal funding, MDA is on track to support its second largest cohort for FY2024, with 62 new incoming grantees and nearly $1 million in awards. FY2024 is also the first year that MDA has included early care settings serving children 0-5 years old, increasing the pool of eligible applicants for the grant opportunity. 

The positive impact of MDA’s grant support is clear, with nearly all grantees reporting that it provides support to purchase more and an increased variety of local products than they would have been able to purchase without the grant as well as allowing them to plan ahead. Grantees reported that community response to their Farm to School activities has been positive. Lastly, the grant has helped to improve the quality of foods that schools serve and enabled students to eat more vegetables. 

Grantees had suggestions for improvements to MDA’s Farm to School grant program, with several respondents requesting a simplified application process and expanded ability to use the grant funding when serving meals outside the school year during the summer months when Minnesota’s growing season is at its peak. 

Grantees appreciated MDA’s grant program for helping address the challenge of food budget constraints, which limit what they can purchase. Grantees highlighted other challenges, including the identification of farmers from whom to source, figuring out purchasing and delivery logistics and determining the availability of local products, especially if weather or other factors make local products more unpredictable to source. Grantees appreciated the kitchen equipment component of MDA’s grant program, which addresses the potential extra time it can take to prepare whole products from the farm compared to pre-processed items purchased through a distributor. These challenges are connected to the overarching barrier reported by grantees: limited staff time. Staff have limited time available for additional tasks, such as researching farmers, sourcing specific local items, managing delivery logistics, integrating local products into the menu and preparing local items in the kitchen. Strikingly, the top barriers identified by schools today echo the very same barriers reported in our first statewide Farm to School survey of schools in 2010, when schools identified the top barriers to using more local foods as extra labor/prep time, pricing/fitting local food into budgets and difficulty finding farmers to purchase from directly.

Schools gave concrete suggestions for resources that would best support the growth of Farm to School initiatives, highlighting the need for facilitated connections to farmers, recipes that incorporate local ingredients, and strategies for engaging students, teachers, parents and community as top priorities. Additionally, respondents identified hands-on and introductory training, additional promotional resources, connections with other schools, support for writing grant applications, additional storage (including cold storage) and continued funding, as well as regional coordinator positions to support connecting with farmers in the area, as other necessary supports to help schools start or expand Farm to School programs. As Farm to School initiatives continue to grow across the state, efforts to provide the resources that schools identified as needs and dismantle identified barriers will bolster this momentum.

Students enjoy a local lunch in Northfield.

Students enjoy a local lunch in Northfield.


Download a PDF of this report.

Appendix A: Fiscal Year 2023 MDA Farm to School First Bite and Full Tray Grantee list

Appendix B: UMN Extension Summary from Farm to School Survey

Appendix C: 2024 MN Department of Ag Farm to School Grant FY2023 Evaluation Report (Economic Impact & Product Mix) Final


The authors would like to thank the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) Farm to School grantees and the farmers from whom they purchase for their support of our evaluation efforts, including submitting purchasing records, responding to our statewide survey and participating in evaluation conversations to share deeper insights. Your perspective is essential to understanding the landscape of Farm to School in our state and planning for the best ways to support you. Special thanks to Ryan Pesch at the University of Minnesota Extension for supporting the administration of the statewide Farm to School survey and to Kate Seybold and Emily Mehr of MDA and Jayme Anderson of the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) for insightful review of this report. 

Thank you to our partners from the MN Farm to School Leadership Team and MN Farm to Early Care Network for their ongoing collaboration and partnership, including in developing and promoting this survey. We are grateful to be part of this community of dedicated partners working to support and grow Farm to School and Early Care throughout Minnesota. 

This evaluation work was conducted through funding from a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Specialty Crop Block Grant administered by the MN Department of Agriculture. 

For more information about Farm to School and the MDA Farm to School Grants, please see: