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Stand for Food continues to seek permanence

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 08/21/2013 7:49 AM

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FERGUS FALLS — Supporters were shocked when the Sustainable Food Production program was suspended at Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Fergus Falls in May.

They quickly took action and turned to social media.

The group, using a grant form the Unitarian Universalist Church, set up Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr accounts and a blog to bring attention to the program's plight.

Their social media campaign, "Stand for Food," has gained support from more than 285 people who "liked" it on Facebook. The social media sites also are getting comments from people throughout the country.

Sue Wika, a sociology professor, co-founder of SFP and sustainable farmer, said faculty, students and supporters were surprised by the administration's decision. The group had secured promises of outside funding and partners in higher education. When administrators wouldn't budge, Wika said, the group realized it must stress the need for sustainable food production.

SFP program graduate Noelle Harden is blogging and posting tweets and status updates on the program's effect in her professional and personal life. The program led to her job with the University of Minnesota Extension as a Community Food Systems educator for northwest Minnesota. She works in 16 counties and three reservations on food system changes so more people have greater access to healthy food.

Her husband, Andy Hayner, also is an SFP graduate. They have started Freedom Rangers to provide education and consulting about pastured livestock production systems. They also help customers with poultry processing.

"The Stand for Food blog is a great way to learn about graduates of the program and all the ways that we are utilizing the practical education we received at M-State," she said. "It's an important avenue for applying pressure on M-State administrators as well, but it is not the only avenue. I hope that people will continue to send letters, emails and make phone calls to the administrators at M-State so that they remember that 'community' is a key part of community college. They need to hear how valuable young, local food producers are to Fergus Falls, to the Northwest region and to the entire state of Minnesota."

Cedar Roller-Olson is a program graduate who supports efforts to reinstate the course.

The program, she said, gave students experience and has resulted in many returning to rural areas.

MSCTC President Peggy Kennedy said the program has been suspended and not canceled.

Enrollment was one of the administrators' considerations in their decision, Kennedy said. SFP had 13 students registered in the class in 2010, 12 students in 2011 and six in 2012. The college likes about 15 students per course, she said.

Wika called the 2012 drop a "blip" and told administrators she received several calls from potential students throughout the last school year.

Administrators also take into consideration the job prospect for graduates, Kennedy said.

Kennedy said if changes are made to the program over the 2013-14 school year, SFP could be offered in fall 2014.

SFP and similar programs are needed, said Kathryn Draeger, statewide director of the U of M's Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships.

She pointed to a U of M College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources online sustainability of food systems course taught by Jason Hill that drew 17,000 students.

"There is a remarkable increase in interest and access to local foods, whether it's in a restaurant or farm-to-school program. Sustainable production is on an upwards trajectory," Draeger said.

SFP supporter Katy Olson said the movement is statewide.

CFANS will be starting a new major this fall in food systems, she said.

"A one-year diploma program at an affordable public community and technical college was the right fit for many people interested in working in sustainable ag," Wika said. "Unfortunately, now there's no middle ground for intensive, hands-on training in sustainable livestock and cropping systems."

The MSCTC SFP program offered a great experiential learning opportunity to students, Draeger said.

The Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota temporarily has taken the SFP program under its umbrella and is offering workshops based on the program's courses.

However, Stand for Food and its allies continue to seek a permanent institutional berth.

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