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Learning about what you eat

Published (2/25/2011)
By Sue Hegarty
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When you order a cheeseburger or pick up a slice of pizza, do you pause to find out if Minnesota farm families grew the crops or raised the animals used in the ingredients?

“All too often we take for granted our abundant food supply,” Julie Tesch, executive director of the Agricultural Education Leadership Council, told the House Agriculture and Rural Development Policy and Finance Committee Feb. 15.

A goal of the Minnesota Future Farmers of America Association, in cooperation with Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom, is to increase agricultural awareness and knowledge of where our food comes from.

Fewer farmers means residents are less connected to where their food comes from and what farmers do to make it abundant and safe to eat, said Rep. Paul Torkelson (R-Nelson Township).

“Fifty-four percent of Minnesotans do not know a farmer or anyone associated with the practice of farming … it’s very scary for us in agriculture, and who support it and want to see it grow and succeed,” said Liz Rabbe, FFA Minnesota vice president.

Rabbe and 9,000 other Minnesota FFA member students have been participating in the Agriculture Literacy Challenge, a new way for Minnesota FFA chapters to advocate for their industry.  

For example, Morris Area FFA members showed urban elementary students live animals, explaining each animal’s purpose in the food chain. They also shared a model called the “exploding cheeseburger.” By breaking down a cheeseburger’s ingredients, the elementary students could better understand that meat, cheese, vegetables and even the bun are derived from agriculture.

“If we’re going to feed the world, people need to know what goes into producing the food on their table so they have the confidence in the safety and quality of the food they’re eating,” said Joel Larsen, state FFA advisor.

Post-secondary education is a way for agri-students and urban students to connect in college. The Agricultural Education Club at the University of Minnesota sponsored Agriculture Awareness Day on the Twin Cities campus last year; an estimated 4,000 people attended.

“Something on this scale had never been done before,” said Jason Kaare, a junior majoring in agriculture education and club president. About 15 agricultural organizations were represented including the Minnesota Pork Board and the Minnesota Beef Council. Llamas and beef cattle were a big hit on campus, Kaare said. “We tried to have some live animals to give these urban students a chance to see exactly where their hamburger comes from because a lot of them have no clue,” he added.

Rep. Andrew Falk (DFL-Murdock) pointed out the strong movement for community-supported agriculture, particularly due to the high cost of transporting products. “I believe that average distance is about 1,800 miles,” Falk said.

There are 216 agricultural education teachers offering 185 programs in secondary schools. Jeff Eppen, a Sibley East-Arlington High School teacher, helps students plan and manage a school garden that provides a healthy source of food for the cafeteria and a lesson in agronomy careers.

“This is an area a lot of students don’t tend to gravitate toward. They tend to gravitate toward the animals,” Eppen said. “We wanted to open their eyes to other options.”

His students grew 40 gallons of green beans that the cafeteria staff prepared and served. However, the cooks sent a clear message that they weren’t fond of shucking the bushels of peas also grown, so Eppen said they’ll need to plant something else next year.

School districts have discretionary authority to levy for career and technical education programs, such as DECA, Inc. and FFA. Federal funding is also available. But as school district budgets tighten, educators are making critical decisions about what they can afford, said Larsen.

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