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Q & A: Stephanie Heim, Extension Farm to school coordinator

September 28, 2011

Stephanie Heim, Extension farm to school coordinator

Stephanie Heim, Extension farm to school coordinator, finds success improving children's nutrition by connecting schools with local growers. During Minnesota Farm to School Month, Heim sat down for an interview to discuss how farm to school programming fits with Extension, how it's making an impact in the state and what she loves most about her work.

Why is Farm to School part of University of Minnesota Extension?
Extension is engaged in Farm to School because having ready access to a variety of nutritious food grown by Minnesota farmers is integral to our health. Extension is strong in food, agriculture, nutrition, youth development and building strong communities. Farm to school initiatives cut across all of these areas of expertise.

Extension sees value in building partnerships, and partnerships make farm to school happen.

What do you like about your work?
I like helping people get to know Minnesota farmers, how food is grown, and how it impacts their bodies. School gardens, farm field trips, cooking classes and taste-testing all motivate kids toward healthier eating habits that will last a lifetime.

I feel good knowing that everything I do is supported by research. Research tells us that when schools become involved in farm to school, students increase their consumption of fruit and vegetables by one serving at school and at home. I incorporate Extension research and the research of other University faculty, particularly from the School of Public Health, into my job.

What about your work makes a difference for Minnesotans?
I listen to people. If there is a school looking to buy local food, I introduce them to interested farmers. If schools are looking to improve their nutrition education, I introduce them to one of our 100-plus community nutrition educators across the state.

What's a common misconception about Farm to School?
It's that some schools can't do it. Really, it doesn't matter whether the school is big or small, or in farm country or surrounded by concrete. Farm to school comes in all shapes and sizes. Some schools feature one local food each month, while others grow a school garden or do even more. Most farm to school initiatives start small.

There's also a misconception that it's all about K-12. Preschools and colleges—even nursing homes—have used Minnesota's Farm to School Toolkit to learn how to offer locally grown, healthy foods. Any place that has a cafeteria can do something.

What kind of education or expertise did you have that led to you getting the job?
I'm a registered dietitian and earned my master's degree in public health nutrition from the University of Minnesota. As a student I interned with the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture as they built Minnesota's Farm to School Toolkit. For my thesis, I led and evaluated a gardening- and cooking-based nutrition education program for fourth- to sixth-grade youth.

Is it all about fruits and vegetables?
Minnesota producers have many foods that work well in school lunches. A school in Willmar had success working with a wheat farmer and a local baker. The kids loved the rolls! Local honey, dried beans, maple syrup, wild rice—even grass-fed beef hotdogs—are some other examples. Fruits and vegetables are really important though, and a great place to start.

What's your favorite fruit and vegetable?
Asparagus and strawberries in spring, peppers in summer, and roasted squash and apples in the fall. That's what I love about eating seasonally—I have a new favorite every few months.

See Extension's Farm to School website for information on resources for famers, schools, parents and teachers.

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