Food and Education Go Hand in Hand

13 Oct

School Nutrition Association has increased its lobbying efforts to turn back new nutritional standards. In 2010 new legislation was passed that limited sodium and increased fruits and vegetables in school lunches. These regulations were passed with bipartisan support, but have since come under attack by the SNA by creating “opt-out” options for school districts. Their “concern” being that the new regulations will raise the price of producing school lunches thus putting additional strain in the districts. Right here in Minnesota we have a great example of how to create healthier meals that taste great.

Bertrand Weber is the Director of Nutrition and Culinary Services for the Minneapolis Public Schools. After seeing how school food exacerbated his son’s type 1 diabetes, Weber transitioned from cooking at high end restaurants and hotels to managing culinary services for school districts. When he started his position at MPS, he signaled big things would be changing. Many schools now have salad bars and school kitchens are being renovated so food can be cooked on site again. Students like the changes. Participation in the school lunch program has risen from 58 to 66 percent in just 2 years. Weber’s success shows that schools can find creative ways to provide high quality food that meets the new standards.

Weber also shifted district food purchasing policy to buy more local fruits and vegetables.

This is part of a larger movement by anchor institutions to use their purchasing power to shift large markets. The Real Food Challenge is a national student led movement to shift 20% of the $5 billion higher education spends on food each year. The Real Food Challenge lobbies universities to commit at least 20% of their food purchasing power to community supported, sustainable, and justly produced food. This May, the California State University committed their entire system to 20% real food by 2020. With 447,000 students and a $100 million food budget, they are the largest signatory of the Real Food Challenge. The $20 million that will be shifted each year will support the local food economy, improve wages on tomato farms and coffee plantations, and improve the health of our ecosystems.

Minnesota educational institutions should sign the Real Food Challenge Commitment. The University of Minnesota has special commitments to agriculture through its status as a land grant university. It could support more just and sustainable food for its enrolled 69,000 students. MNSCU serves 430,000 students. Changing its food purchasing policy would have a similar impact as it has in California. The Minnesota public schools serve 845,177 students each year. A significant change in purchasing policy at public schools would have the largest impact of all.  Let’s make Real Food possible for all Minnesotans by having our public institutions lead the way.


This post was first published at MN2020


The Bank for Better Buses, Part 3

10 Oct

Creating a full-service Metro Go-To Card would benefit transit usersand those without access to traditional banking services. It would also benefit the Met Council. There are examples of public institutions acting as lending agencies that provide great benefit to a range of people. The largest example of a public institution bank is the Bank of North Dakota (BND).

In 1919, North Dakotans, in a wave of populist progressivism and angry at the financial control wielded by Twin Cities’ banks, created a publicly operated bank that could provide loans and hold savings. Created by and for the people, BND was designed to provide more affordable loans to struggling farmers and families out on the prairie. Over the last 80 years it has provided a tremendous service to the state of North Dakota and continues to receive large support for citizens.

Banks make money by charging a higher interest rate on loans than needed to pay the smaller interest rate of depositors. As a private institution they seek to maximize these profits. Banks can make small loans to farmers that need new equipment or to governments that need new infrastructure, making money on each of them. North Dakota found that a public bank worked better for them.

As a public institution, BND has a different objective, to provide a quality service to its citizens. Instead of profits being placed in the hands of bankers, they are returned, in various ways, to the people of North Dakota. Mostly profits are returned through lower interest rates. Farmers and students can better escape the stress of high levels of debt that plague them both. It can also provide low interest rate loans to the cities and state of North Dakota. Studies have shown that interest from private loans composes 30-50 percent of public loans. Without needing to pay back expensive interest to private banks, cities can build better schools and the state can build sewers more affordably. This makes North Dakota a better place to live.

The Met Council can learn from the success of the Bank of North Dakota by creating a bank that could provide loans for infrastructure improvements. The Met Council has recently invested in the water and sewer system so these will need little large investments in the coming decades (Thrive 2040). The Met Council and the region do recognize that we need to significantly invest in transportation infrastructure for the next couple of decades. These projects would benefit from the assistance of a public bank. I want a bank that begets better buses. Don’t you?


This post first appeared on MN2020

Go-To Banking, Part 2

8 Oct

The expanding list of transportation options makes our multi-modal system stronger. All of these services should be lauded for its efforts. There is one catch, however. Each transportation service requires a debit or credit card as a payment option. For the 16.7 percent of Minnesotans who are unbanked or underbanked, debit and credit cards are out of reach.

The FDIC classifies unbanked as those people lacking any kind of deposit account at an insured depository institution such as a savings or checking account. Underbanked housholds have a bank account but also rely on Alternative Financial Services (AFS) like money orders, non-bank check cashing, payday loans, and prepaid debit cards. Each of these services exacts heavy fees, making these services more expensive than traditional banking.

While 16.7 percent of unbanked or underbanked households is too many people with too few options, it is the lowest percentage in the Upper Midwest (Wisconsin is at 18.7 percent). However, like so many of the great successes in Minnesota, there is a large disparity in who shares in that success. Whereas 14.8 percent of family households (as compared to non-family households) were without full banking services, 36.5 percent of households led by a single female were without full banking services. Of those making under $15,000 a year, 58.5 percent were fully banked. Only 39.5 percent of black households were fully banked, compared to 84.7 percent of white households. This is consistant with national disparities where 41.6 percent of black households are fully banked compared to 77 percent of white households. People across the county are working on different ways to give everyone access to banking options.

Chicago has come up with one solution to help those without banking services while serving its transportation mission. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) has switched to a new fare payment system called Ventra. Ventra operates similar to the Twin Cities’ Metro Transit Go-To card in that a person can buy long term passes and store funds. Its additional feature makes it different. The Ventra card also functions as a prepaid debit card, usable anywhere debit cards are accepted. This may seem like a large jump but in fact is just a continuation of previous services.

The fare cards preceding Ventra, Chicago Card and Go-To, also stored money for later use. The transit service restricted transactions to their proprietary transportation services but the principle of a financial exchange instrument is the same. Eliminating the payment restriction allows people to save money in their transit account just as they would in a traditional bank account. This change would allow those without banking access to the services traditionally accessed though bank accounts.

The transition in Chicago has been controversial, however. The CTA outsourced fare collection and the prepaid debit card system to the private company Ventra rather than keep it agency managed like the Chicago Card. The outsourcing has led to price increases similar to what was experienced when Chicago sold all city parking meters to investment firms. When Ventra took over fare collection for the CTA, single fare tickets increased from $2.25 to $3.00. The one-day pass jumped from $5.75 to $10, a 74% increase. The prepaid debit card is similarly riddled with high costs and hidden fees. Though it is free to activate, estimates using the card will cost $188 per year. This is more expensive than most other prepaid debit cards. This is a good reminder that outsourcing government isn’t better for citizens. It might look cheaper on paper, but only because costs are externalized, especially to those already struggling.

Minnesota can improve on Chicago by implementing the system though the Go-To card. Met Transit would expand the functionality of Go-To cards by letting them act as savings accounts. Public oversight from the Met Council would prevent the price gouging seen in Chicago, giving everyone the opportunity for affordable transactional instruments, creating more options for the unbanked and underbanked.

(Banking data from the FDIC 2011 National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households)


This post first appeared at MN2020

Could Go-To Banking be the ticket? Part 1

6 Oct

Significant praise has been heaped on ridesharing services. Uber, Car2Go, HourCar and NiceRideMN, to name a few, are lauded for increasing transportation options. Each service adds another way to get from point A to B, making our multimodal system stronger. These networks run best when switching from one mode to another is easy and obvious.

Now, however, these services accept payment in different methods. Uber and Lyft charge through a smart phone application. Car2Go and HourCar have membership cards to unlock the vehicles; and NiceRideMN uses a credit card or a membership card. Each of these services uses a different system, making it challenging to switch from one to another. This makes our multi-modal network weaker. There should be one card that works across all platforms, so each mode is easily accessible. The Metro Transit Go-To cards can be that card.

Go-To cards already make for a more efficient public transportation system. They can be used as a monthly pass or as stored value, so no accidentally throwing out a needed transfer. With only a quick swipe needed for payment, boarding the bus is faster. When money is added to the card, an extra 10 percent is added, making taking the bus an even cheaper option than driving. With a solid track record of success, expanding Go-To cards to all the transportation options just makes sense.

The expansion would benefit many regular Go-To card users. Many high school students use a Go-To card everyday. Since 2013, all public school buses to high schools have been discontinued and replaced with Go-To passes. The collaboration between Met Transit and Minneapolis Public Schoolsgives each eligible student a Go-To card that provides rides between 5:00am and 10:00pm. Adding the other multi-modal options to the card improves access for these students. It facilitates students to take the bus to the library or a museum and take a NiceRide the last 5 blocks, making the city a classroom for all students.

Let’s expand Go-To cards to NiceRides and car-sharing services like Uber and HourCar. Adding Go-To cards to other transportation services would strengthen our multimodal transportation system helping people connect to destinations in a way that works for them.


This post first appeared on MN2020

I Marched There to Come Home Here

3 Oct

boundary_watersI wanted to go from my university in Massachusetts to the climate march in New York City so that I can come home to a Minnesota that has a brighter future.

I went to the climate march to come home to Minnesota where the Iron Range again has good middle class jobs. The northern forests can provide the basis for a sustainable economy. With careful stewardship our people can provide biofuels that can power our state and nation. With our manufacturing skill, we can provide new tools for a new economy. With clean lakes we can enjoy our lives for centuries to come.

I went to the climate march to come home to Minnesota where the Southern plains have stable jobs, free from the great swings in commodity prices. The southern prairie can provide the basis for a sustainable economy. With methods, old and new, our people can provide the food that can feed our state and nation. With our skill in caring for people, we will have a population healthy and ready to face all new challenges. With clean rivers we can enjoy our lives for centuries to come.

I went to the climate march to come home to Minnesota where the Twin Cities can be a place of opportunity for all. The Twin Cities can provide a basis for a sustainable economy. With care and precision, our people will discover new techniques and technologies that will make our state and our nation more sustainable. With our skill and commitment to education, we will have a population with the knowledge to build a new economy. With our plenty of parks we can enjoy our lives for centuries to come.

I went to the climate march to come home to Minnesotans. Climate change affects each and every one of us, but especially those already struggling. Each of us can be a part of the fight to turn the tide against an economy that exploits both people and the earth. Each of us can be a part of the movement to build a new economy that cares for both people and the earth. What will you do?


This post first appeared at MN2020

Map: Lessons Learned from Past Transit Investments

2 Oct

Met Council predicts the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro region will grow by 824,000 people within the next 30 years as part of its Thrive 2040 plan.

So where are we going to put nearly a million more Minnesotans, especially when you consider most future state highway spending will be dedicated to fixing the existing infrastructure? One plan is to aggressively embark on transit-supportive land use. Meaning better integration of new construction, transit routes and non-motorized ways of getting around.

Before conservatives start with their heavy-handed government arguments, let’s consider this nation’s historical relationship between transportation and development.

Hastings, Red Wing, and Winona were all founded on the Mississippi to accommodate the most efficient transportation of the day, boats. In much of farming Minnesota, towns were spaced along the railroad so that farmers could bring their grain to the elevator and make it home that night. Trains represented another efficient way for grain to be moved across long distances with little energy. As Minneapolis grew, it built an extensive streetcar system to efficiently move people in and out of downtown and between the neighborhoods. Each of these transportation methods leaves a mark on our towns and cities.

Sixty years after the end of the streetcar network, the housing development that mirrors that network makes clear the connection between transportation and housing development. The decisions we make about transit today will have implications for decades to come, so the one chance we have to built should be done right. As Minnesotans age, they need an alternative to single-occupancy vehicle driving. As pollution puts more pressure on our environment and population growth congests our roads, we need 21st century solutions.


This post originally appeared at MN2020.

Land Access

3 Dec

I wrote this blog post this summer while in Minneapolis. It sat unfinished and unnoticed until today.

I attended the Land Access sub-committee meeting of Homegrown Minneapolis. In its 3rd meeting, they are starting to address the questions of how and who can get land. Some of the points raised in the meeting allow me to talk about some issues that I have wanted to cover but have not yet addressed.

Issues of privilege and discrimination affect gardening and urban farming in ways not always recognized. With the current trend in urban farming it is easy for people to forget the long history of growing food in cities. For decades people have gardened as a way to bring down grocery costs. This was often done in community gardens in low income neighborhoods. These communities have long struggled with city policy makers who have not been welcoming of the gardens. Often the city finds a “higher use” for the land that has a community garden and so takes it away. In communities without access to traditional levers of power efforts to stop the change are not usually successful.

Fast forward to the present day where white, often college educated people have”discovered” the glories of urban farming. Because they do not face the same levels of discrimination and have more privilege than people of color, their ideas have received more traction. This brings me to a question that was central to the conversations happening at the Land Access meeting. How can the recent surge in interest in urban farming result in equitable access to urban agriculture?

Loose networks of acquaintances and relationships can help someone find land. Maybe it’s a friend of a friend who owns a commercial building with an unused back area that is suitable for farming. Or maybe it’s a friend who is high up in the park department and helps you get through a request for a community garden. Either way issues of race and class are relevant here. Whites are more likely to own land and thus able to lend some of it out to a friend. Whites disproportionately have positions of power within organizations. To create an equitable urban farming and gardening community these issues must be dealt with explicitly. The solutions and actions taken by the committee must work to break down historic racial and class barriers to access.  (For further discussions of race and food systems look at the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Malik Kenyatta Yakini, the founder, has written and spoken eloquently about this)

     One solution presented was a catalog of city own vacant land that could be used for urban agriculture. This allows someone looking for land easy access to many options without resorting to personal connections. This is a great idea. It turns it already exists. Since no one at the meeting had heard of it, outreach clearly needs to be done.

     Another important issue is land tenure. Many urban farms do not have long term control of the land. One worry is that a network of community gardens helps build community and stabilize the neighborhood, so people move in and the increase in land value convinces the city or privately owned landowner to sell the land on which the community garden sits. In essence, an act of community building end up displacing the relevant community.

Though this blog has some unfinished thought (which I will finish later), I thought I would end with a timely example of the struggles of not having sufficient land tenure. The land on which Cherry Tree House Mushrooms has been farming has been sold and so Jeremy has to move immediately. He needs volunteers to help him move the operation from Dec 4th through the 8th. If you can help, please let him know