In my position as Under Secretary, I occasionally travel the country to meet with, and learn from, some of the many partners who administer and leverage the USDA’s 15 nutrition assistance programs. These programs—from school meals to SNAP (formerly food stamps)—currently touch the lives of one in four Americans.
During a whirlwind visit to Minnesota in March, I had the opportunity to meet with a variety of individuals and organizations directly or indirectly involved with one or more of our nutrition programs. For starters, I participated in a terrific roundtable at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health hosted by national nutrition expert Dr. Mary Story, a strong supporter of healthy school meals. Minnesota Senator Al Franken joined me to hear from local organizations and agencies that administer nutrition assistance programs, promote good nutrition or even work with farmers markets. I was impressed with the accomplishments being realized and the creative approaches employed by local partners to improve nutrition, eliminate hunger, support children and families, and connect farmers to local markets.
The next day Congresswoman Betty McCollum joined me to visit one of the largest school meals operations in the country – the St. Paul Public Schools. Nationally recognized for her success in serving from-scratch meals and sourcing from local farmers, St. Paul Public Schools nutrition director Jean Ronnei gave us a tour of a facility that cranks out 50,000 fresh, healthy meals each day that meet and often exceed USDA’s new school meal standards. Recently, the school district received a USDA Farm to School grant to expand its efforts and continue to source buffalo meat, cranberries, carrots, potatoes and a host of other food products from Minnesota farmers and food companies.
As part of my visit, I also had the chance to talk to farmers that provide foods for St. Paul Schools. They are great supporters of Farm to School—not only because it contributes to their bottom line, but because it connects children with the farmers that grow their food and introduces them to fresh, healthy fruits, vegetables and other locally grown farm products.
Finally, I joined the Congresswoman for a roundtable with community partners hosted by Hunger Solutions Minnesota and the historic Neighborhood House at St. Paul’s Wellstone Center. The Center, named for late Senator Paul Wellstone, offers a food pantry (or shelf, as it’s called in Minnesota) stocked with USDA foods. The Center also offers a variety of social services and is a strong thread in St. Paul’s social fabric.
As I often am when talking to state and local partners and viewing our programs in action, I came away impressed with how much can be accomplished by coupling USDA programs with creative and dedicated individuals and organizations that enthusiastically support our shared mission.
Through the leadership and hard work of community groups, social service organizations and government agencies and with the support of Senator Franken and Congresswoman McCollum, Minnesota is improving nutrition, reducing hunger, supporting local farmers and rural economies and ensuring that America’s next generation is healthy and well-nourished.