Blazing Trails through the Jungle of Food Regulations

Final report for ENC18-171

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2018: $67,086.00
Projected End Date: 02/28/2021
Grant Recipient: University of Minnesota
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Helene Murray
MN Institute for Sus. Agric., Univ. of MN
Co-Coordinators:
Dr. Helene Murray
University of Minnesota
Jane Jewett
Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture
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Project Information

Abstract:

Food regulations in Minnesota are complex and are implemented by a variety of different agencies at the local and state level. This leads to immense confusion on the part of farmers and prospective food entrepreneurs, who are then hampered in their ability to develop local food enterprises. This project will target community leaders involved with local food systems in all 87 Minnesota counties, over two years. The project team of Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA), Renewing the Countryside (RTC), and Minnesota Farmers' Market Association (MFMA) will compile a set of useful reference materials on food regulations relevant to local food systems, and will work with the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership (SHIP) in all counties to schedule and deliver training to a minimum of three local leaders per county. This will result in a cohort in each county that can assist local food enterprises and projects to navigate regulations and move forward. It will also allow the project team to connect county-level concerns to the newly-developed Food Innovation Team (FIT) that involves Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Minnesota Department of Health in resolving difficult food licensing issues. We anticipate an improved climate for local food systems and enterprises in Minnesota as a result of this project, which will ultimately benefit farmers who produce food and the communities where they live and work.

Project Objectives:

OUTCOMES
We expect that county-level food system leaders who attend this training will report increases in:

- Their knowledge of the landscape of food regulatory jurisdictions
- Their knowledge of food license types and matching of license types to food-related activities
- Their ability to explain the basics of Minnesota's food regulatory system to others
- Their confidence in recognizing situations that need clarification from either a local inspector or higher-up inspection staff
- Their ability to refer a farmer or local food entrepreneur to an inspector

We anticipate that on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being lowest level, training participants will report an average of a 2-point positive shift in all points listed above.
Providing inspector contact information and project team contact information to the county-level trainees will cause trainees to feel that they have permission to ask questions, seek clarification, and elevate food licensing concerns seen in their communities. We anticipate a 10% increase in first contacts made to food inspectors in 2019 and 2020, and will seek information from MDA and MDH food licensing programs to attempt to verify that figure.
We anticipate the project team will field a minimum of 50 food licensing questions from the counties, and that a minimum of 10 of those questions will be suitable for attention by the Food Innovation Team (FIT.) FIT attention to a question means there will be a regulatory or jurisdictional interpretation, and the results will be conveyed to MDA and MDH regulatory field staff as well as the public. Therefore, the project will assist in developing a conduit for intake of difficult licensing questions to be resolved by FIT. Ultimately this will benefit local food systems across the state by elevating and resolving regulatory barriers commonly faced by local food entrepreneurs.
Providing reference tools and training in their use to a cohort of at least three local leaders per county will result in an improved atmosphere for local food enterprises in Minnesota counties. We expect to see increased entrepreneurial activity around local food in the years following the training events. Specifically, we hypothesize that trained county-level leaders, in the year following training, will assist two farmers or food entrepreneurs per county to launch local food enterprises. Full corroboration of this hypothesis extends beyond the term of the grant, but we will be able to partially check this with the 45 counties receiving training in the first year of the grant. Our exit survey with county SHIP coordinators will specifically ask about assistance provided to local food entrepreneurs.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Kathy Zeman (Educator)
  • Brett Olson (Educator)

Education

Educational approach:

Assembly of cohort of local food system leaders by a local point person. Four-hour presentation of slide deck with ample question & answer time; including small-group activity to practice matching local food sales situations to the correct regulatory agency with jurisdiction over licensing. Provision of list of relevant resources to all participants; provision of in-depth binder of resources and flash drive of binder materials to three participants who can serve as local resource people. 

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Upgrade trainer knowledge and skills
Objective:

The three trainers for the project; Jane Jewett, Kathy Zeman, and Brett Olson; need to be well-versed in all details of local food regulations in Minnesota.

Description:

The three trainers who make up the project team held training and study sessions with each other, both in-person and online; and did a minimum of 10 hours of self-study. Project team members collaborated in development and review of slide deck material and consulted with MDA and MDH regulators.

Outcomes and impacts:

Three trainers as members of the project team developed in-depth knowledge of local food regulations and how they apply in a wide variety of scenarios. The trainers became confident in their ability to explain food regulations and are available on an ongoing basis to field regulatory questions from local food system entities. Development of the trainers' capacity to train on local food regulations has led to presentation opportunities beyond those funded by the SARE-PDP grant, and has cemented their leadership role in other venues such as Minnesota's Food Safety & Defense Task Force.

Through Blazing Trails trainings, we took in questions from participants and circled back to the regulatory agencies via the Local Food Advisory Committee, the Food Innovation Team, and direct communication with MDA and MDH food regulators to get questions answered. This new information gained during the course of the project was added to the Blazing Trails slide deck. 

When COVID-19 hit, our trainers participated in conference calls with staff from MDA, MDH, and the state Department of Labor and Industry to understand the COVID-19 guidance for farmers and farmers' markets, and to assist in development of guidance documents. COVID-19 specific information was incorporated into the Blazing Trails training on 6 slides added to the slide deck. During the pandemic, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture announced it would exercise regulatory discretion to allow multi-farm CSAs, farmers' market food hubs, and other aggregation activities to proceed without licensing as a way to reduce person-to-person contact and improve local food security. The project team worked with U of MN Extension educators to develop guidance documents about this regulatory discretion, and incorporated the information into the Blazing Trails slide deck.

Food_Regulations_for_FM_Online_Ordering_Systems_FINAL

Number_people_per_market_space_FINAL

Develop training materials
Objective:

Assemble a comprehensive and organized set of training materials and reference materials for use in county-level trainings

Description:

The trainers developed a topic list and training curriculum that includes an interactive small-group activity component. We created a printed binder of key resources to cover all aspects of local food systems, assembled from fact sheets and other materials from MISA, MFMA, MDA, MDH. We developed a website portal to these materials, and a PowerPoint presentation that presents information in a logical progression. 

 

Outcomes and impacts:

The binder of resources, website, and presentation have now become the definitive set of local food regulatory information for the state of Minnesota. The trainers for this project routinely refer to these resources to answer questions from the public. The assembly of a variety of resources from multiple organizations into an organized and coherent whole is enabling the trainers and county-level trainees to more quickly find information as questions arise. Energy can be spent in productive ways for local food enterprise development rather than in chaotic attempts to find regulatory information. 

We distributed 72 binders of resources and flash drives in the 24 counties where we were able to train in person. Following the February 2021 series of online trainings, we shipped another 125 binders to people in our outreach co-sponsors groups and to people who indicated interest in an online survey; for a total of 197 printed binders distributed. The binder materials are also fully available online on the MISA website:

https://www.misa.umn.edu/resources/blazing-trails

As of April 20, 2021 there were 2,882 visits to the Blazing Trails web page. 

In addition to the trainings scheduled through the Blazing Trails project channel, we have seen a number of requests for topic-specific materials based on the Blazing Trails training. Our team developed materials and conducted the following additional training events upon request of event organizers. These were all scheduled before the end of the project on February 28, 2021 but some took place after that date:

Minnesota Farmers' Market Association hosted the full Blazing Trails training during their online conference, on December 4, 2020:  https://www.mfma.org/Annual-Conference

Emerging Farmers Conference, session focused on legal sales of value-added products on January 28, 2021

BlazingTrails_presentation_EmergingFarmers_v012821

Indigenous Farmers Conference, session focused on product of the farm and Cottage Food sales on March 7, 2021

BlazingTrails_presentation_IndigenousConf_030721

Farm to Grocery Toolkit session in collaboration with U of MN Extension; regulatory information focused on legal product sales to grocery stores on March 30, 2021

Farm_to_Grocery_033021

We also responded to a request from Big River Farms, which anchors the Emerging Farmers Conference  and runs an incubator farm and training for emerging farmers. They requested a farmers' market-focused slide deck based on Blazing Trails to use in their training.

BlazingTrails_FarmersMarketBasics

 

We had anticipated intake of 50 questions during the trainings and 10 questions suitable for the Food Innovation Team (FIT.) In fact there were at least a dozen questions during each training, in-person and online, so we took in well over 50 questions, although some of those were similar to each other.

The questions  suitable for FIT turned out to be lower than 10, partly because of how high the bar is to submit a FIT case. FIT cases are public data so the food business owner is required to identify themselves to regulators, and the cases taken by FIT must be complex enough that food inspectors can't solve them without consultation with supervisors, agency experts, or ad-hoc experts. We were able to submit two FIT cases directly attributable to the Blazing Trails trainings; one of these was heard in May 2020 and the other will be heard in May 2021.

SOP_FIT_x5_20200519_RR_Parinda_final

SOP_FIT_A2_PreScreeningIntakeForm_GoodCourageFarm

 

There were other questions that led to in-depth conversations with MDA and MDH food regulators, and development of fact sheets or segments of fact sheets. Examples of questions and outcomes:

"What about egg washing? Do eggs for sale have to be washed?" - We got a small-scale egg-washing protocol approved by MDA, which was incorporated into the "Selling Minnesota Shell Eggs" fact sheet.

LFAC_local_eggs_2021_final

"Re: maple syrup; is this one of those “grey” areas if you are native. We don’t own or lease the trees. And we don’t add anything." - We clarified with MDA's Tribal Liaison that for Tribal people tapping trees on reservation, or in ceded territory where Tribes retained hunting and gathering rights, this is considered product of the farm and no license is required.

"Can I transfer product of the farm from a USDA butcher to a USDA inspected kitchen and repackage to sell? Example….transfer pig leaf lard from USDA butcher to USDA kitchen to render, package and sell?" - We had extensive discussion with MDA's Dairy & Meat Inspection Division and Food & Feed Safety Division to clarify that farmers can render lard from their own pigs, in any commercial-grade (not private home) kitchen, if the unrendered lard was from animals slaughtered and processed under USDA or Minnesota Equal-To inspection. Further, we learned that rendered fat from on-farm processing of poultry can be done by farmers. This information will be incorporated into the "Selling Minnesota Meat Products" and "Selling Minnesota Poultry Products" fact sheet. While those fact sheets are under revision, we have a temporary "lard" fact sheet available to respond to questions:

ProductoftheFarm_scenarios_animal_products_020521

"I provide services to the owner of the animal at the owner of the animals property for the owner's personal use (not for sale). I do this as a service and also in a private class teaching capacity. " - We clarified with MDA's Dairy & Meat Inspection Division that these activities are legal, and this information will be added to the "Selling Minnesota Meat Products" fact sheet.

 

Training local food cohorts in counties
Objective:

Train a minimum of three local resource people in each Minnesota county, so that access to regulatory information and assistance is distributed statewide

Description:

We worked with local organizers to schedule and deliver trainings within counties. This activity was curtailed by the advent of COVID-19. As of February 21, 2020 we had delivered the training in 24 counties, had an additional 7 county trainings scheduled, and were actively pursuing scheduling in 10 counties. In spring of 2020, after the COVID-19 shutdown, we were able to deliver online training to 2 additional counties. The trainings we were able to deliver in person generally attracted 10 to 20 people, although we had a group of 35 people in Detroit Lakes, MN and 55 people in Eagan, MN. Map showing distribution of trainings as of Feb. 21, 2020:

We conducted outreach efforts through partner organizations, U of MN Extension, and Statewide Health Improvement Partnership (SHIP) to try to recruit local organizers within counties to schedule additional online trainings by county. This did not succeed, probably because everyone's attention was so absorbed by the pandemic. In December 2020 and January 2021 we made another major push to get online trainings scheduled. Rather than trying to get local organizers to initiate scheduling of trainings, which had not succeeded, the project team worked within their respective organizations and with Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota to set 6 online training dates in February and then recruit local food system leaders across the state to push out information about the trainings. Our recruiting letter:

Call_for_Blazing_Trails_local_organizers_012221-corrected

We secured co-sponsorships of these trainings and added a slide (Helping_Us) acknowledging the following entities for helping us spread the word:

Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota
University of Minnesota Extension
Anishinaabe Agriculture Institute
Leech Lake Tribal College
Marshall Farmers' Market

This approach worked much better. We were able to pull in 182 registrants from 60 Minnesota counties, including most of the counties that had offered in-person trainings, for these February events. 

 

Outcomes and impacts:

Distribution of trained individuals is robust in central, northeast, and southeast Minnesota. Our second approach to offering online trainings, especially adding the Marshall Farmers' Market as an outreach partner, led to much improvement in reaching counties in western and southwestern Minnesota that previously we had been unable to reach.  Between in-person and online trainings, we succeeded in training individuals from 60 counties and 5 Tribal entities. 

The north central and northwestern part of the state are still underserved by Blazing Trails trainings. There is a U of MN Extension - Regional Sustainable Development Partnership regional office and a Sustainable Farming Association chapter in the northwest, so those are entities that can connect farmers and food producers with our team if food regulatory questions arise. We will continue to make Blazing Trails available to that region as opportunities arise. 

We had 172 people sign in for the in-person trainings in 24 counties, and 182 registered for the February 2021 online trainings. Not all registrants attended the trainings, but we have their email addresses and can push out information to them. In addition there were 16 people who registered for online trainings in April 2020, and there were 200 farmers' market managers and vendors registered for the Minnesota Farmers' Market Association conference in December 2020. Based on observations of registrations vs. actual numbers attending online webinars, we estimate that 50% of registrants actually attended; so our total number of trainees for both in-person and online was about 370. 

This was a train-the-trainer grant intended to reach local food system leaders in counties throughout Minnesota. Therefore, the intended audience was a little different than a typical SARE grant focused on agricultural production. Our outreach messaging included suggestions of people who should attend:

  • SHIP coordinators
  • U of MN Extension educators
  • Farm group leaders
  • School board members
  • School food service directors
  • Economic development staff
  • Public health staff
  • Restaurant owners
  • Farmers
  • Community Garden coordinators
  • ... and anyone else who wants to!

We used a checklist on registration forms and email addresses to determine who our attendees were. We were able to identify specific community leadership roles for 169 attendees:


Roles of Blazing Trails participants

 

# of participants

Farmer organization

33

Farmers’ Market manager

29

Grocery store/restaurant

5

Healthcare organization

4

College food service, K-12 school or Early Care

21

Statewide Health Improvement Partnership

10

U of MN Extension

28

Hunger relief organization

7

Tribal entity

19

County or city government

13

Sum of participants with identified roles:

169

This list of identified leadership roles matches up very well with our outreach messaging and suggests that we succeeded in reaching the target audience. The remaining participants included farmers, food makers, and "other." Many participants may have multiple roles in their communities, but based on the number of participants with identified roles we are confident that we provided training to the folks in their communities who can serve as effective local point people and help move local food systems forward. 

Because this project had a different focus than agricultural production, we include in the "Ag Professionals" number below the categories of Farmer Organization, Farmers' Market Management, SHIP staff, Extension, and Tribal participants. 

 

We anticipated that trainees' self-assessment of their knowledge would rise by two points on a Likert scale of 5 from pre-training to post-training. Actual rise was 1.5 points; see table below for detail. 

Blazing Trails survey results: self-assessment of knowledge, administered after training.

Training type

N

“Please rate your knowledge of food regulations in Minnesota prior to today’s training”

1=low, 5=high

“Please rate your knowledge of food regulations in Minnesota after today’s training”

1=low, 5=high

In-person, 2019 & 2020

161

2.4

4.0

Online, February 2021

64

2.3

3.8

 

We attribute the lower than anticipated rise in knowledge to the fact that the training was long and complex, and people discovered there was much more to know than they had anticipated. We received a number of comments to that effect:

"Very good session, realized how little I know about licensure"

"Great training, still a lot to learn but gave me a good understanding"

"Learned a lot but also learned how much I don't know"

"Thank You 🙂 As long as I use my binder to review"

"Great workshop! Only reason my knowledge change isn’t greater is because there is so much info… BUT I have more resources to find answers. Thank you!!"

Development of relationships between the project team trainers, the local organizers in counties, leaders of Sustainable Farming Association chapters and other leaders of organizations, and the trained individuals in counties has enabled more conversation about local food regulations and more efficient discovery of issues that require clarification from regulators.

 

 

Educational & Outreach Activities

80 Consultations
6 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
9 Online trainings
38 Published press articles, newsletters
24 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

28 Extension
97 Nonprofit
42 Agency
121 Farmers/ranchers
80 Others

Learning Outcomes

370 Participants gained or increased knowledge, skills and/or attitudes about sustainable agriculture topics, practices, strategies, approaches
119 Ag professionals intend to use knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness learned

Project Outcomes

8 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:
  • Availability of comprehensive, organized set of regulatory information pertaining to local food and local food systems. The slide deck currently stands at 224 slides. It is organized in sections that make it easy to create custom slide decks around specific topics. These custom decks have already  been requested by several entities and we anticipate future demand for this.
  • Trained cohorts of local food leaders in-person in 24 counties as of 2/21/2020. Trained a total of 370 farmers, food makers, and local leaders from a variety of disciplines. All participants and registrants are listed in a spreadsheet database with email addresses, which will enable our project team to continue to communicate with them as updated regulatory information becomes available.
  • Regulatory clarification achieved for individuals with food regulatory questions. Trainings both in-person and online were interactive, with participants allowed to ask questions at any point during presentations. Questions were either fully answered by presenters during the training, or follow-up with regulators to answer questions was done after training. 
  • Introduction of Food Innovation Team to food system leaders in 60 counties. Regulatory case from Cook County submitted to Food Innovation team; outcome clarified regulations for manufacturing of food products containing meat for wholesale sales. Regulatory case from McLeod County submitted to Food Innovation Team; outcome pending but will clarify the boundaries of Minnesota's religious exemption for a church-affiliated farm offering on-farm religious activities, food service, and food manufacturing.
  • At least 28 entities distributed additional copies of binders, offered their own trainings based on Blazing Trails, or requested follow-up presentations from our project team: Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota (and 8 regional chapters), Leech Lake Tribal and Community College, Anishinaabe Agriculture Institute, Finland Food Chain, Big River Farms, Partnership 4 Health (regional SHIP group), Community Wellness Partners (regional SHIP group), University of Minnesota Extension - Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, U of MN Extension - Urban Research & Outreach Center, U of MN Extension Regional Office in Worthington, Extension Master Gardeners in 2 counties, Minnesota Farmers' Market Association, Renewing the Countryside, Rochester Farmers' Market, Marshall Farmers' Market, Albert Lea Farmers' Market, Maple Grove Farmers' Market, Indian Health Service, Momanyi Incubator Farm. 
  • Development of new fact sheet segments for local sales of eggs, meat, and poultry as a result of questions asked in Blazing Trails trainings and clarifications achieved in collaboration with Minnesota Department of Agriculture. 
17 Agricultural service provider participants who used knowledge and skills learned through this project (or incorporated project materials) in their educational activities, services, information products and/or tools for farmers
Additional Outcomes:

This project was building up steam and attracting attention all over Minnesota from Extension and Statewide Health Improvement Partnership (SHIP) staff, farmer organizations, and the Farm to School Leadership Team - and then COVID hit. We attempted to carry on with the same concept of trainings for each county, with local organizing of participants done by a local leader, and trainings conducted online. This did not work; we were not able to capture the attention of the folks who could have been local organizers during the early days of the pandemic. We shifted to a model of setting dates for online trainings, opening the trainings to anyone, and recruiting groups to in turn recruit participants. That model succeeded in doubling the number of people we had trained pre-pandemic, and boosting our county coverage to 60 of the 87 counties in Minnesota. We were also able to train folks from the Fond du Lac, Leech Lake, and White Earth federally recognized tribes. Registration and survey information from online participants indicated that we succeeded in reaching our target audience of food systems leaders, including Extension educators, SHIP coordinators, farmers' market managers, leadership of farmer organizations, school and early-care food service personnel, and local governments. 

The "Blazing Trails" name is now a brand with name recognition within Minnesota, especially among farmer organizations and state agency food regulators. The collaborating organizations in this project: Minnesota Farmers' Market Association (MFMA), Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA), and Renewing the Countryside (RTC); intend to continue to offer training and office hours on the Blazing Trails regulatory topics. MFMA hosts a monthly online forum for farmers' market managers that will include a regulatory component each month. RTC and MISA are both members of Minnesota's Farm to School Leadership Team and will be offering regulatory assistance in monthly Technical Assistance Office Hours with other members of that team. 

Work directly with Minnesota Department of Agriculture to update fact sheets is ongoing. This was interrupted and slowed by pandemic response obligations of many MDA staff, but is proceeding again as of early 2021. 

Overall we believe this was a very successful project despite the COVID-19 interruptions, that will bear fruit in Minnesota's food systems for years to come.

Success stories:

Survey comments from participants:

Scott County, MN:  "Nice to have this deck available - thanks! Big Difference now? I know where all the resources are!! Very well-designed presentation deck. I appreciated the humor sprinkled throughout. (A rarity in food regulation.)"

Rice County, MN:  "Thank you! This is much needed clarification and laid out in a digestible way compared to other trainings I have attended."

Cook County, MN: "Great training, certainly produced in my mind a good understanding of the importance of planning and reaching out for help."

Benton County, MN: "Great coverage of MN food laws, regulations, and licensing from A to Z. Highly recommend for anyone in the local food system."

Dakota County, MN: "Food regulations are still very confusing, but this helps empower you with a baseline and resources to figure out what you need."

Online, 2/11/21:  "I learned so much. I feel like I can move forward with my business with a little more confident."

Online, 2/11/21: "I knew a lot coming in but this whole training was still very beneficial and I learned a lot! Will definitely look for video modules coming and bookmark the Blazing Trails website and pass on to colleagues. Experiences and practice scenarios were helpful. Thank you!"

Recommendations:

We greatly appreciate the flexibility from SARE that allowed us the time and the shifts in the project delivery to enable us to see success even with all the COVID-19 disruptions!

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.