Minnesota's Governor Tim Pawlenty Eats Local Food

I had the great pleasure to meet with Amanda Simpson, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s Residence Manager, and Brian McClung, Governor Pawlenty’s Director of Communications, last week. Over the course of an hour, our far-reaching conversation centered on the role of local food at the Residence, also (briefly) touching on Minnesota food policy and what’s to come. (I even got a tour of the garden.) Amanda and Brian were refreshingly candid, and I was glad to meet them and see their work first-hand.

Amanda, a life-long foodie whose resume includes a stint at the Nicollet Island Inn, became especially interested in local food over the last few years, jumping in with both feet - joining a farmshare and even making her own ketchup - after reading Barbara Kingsolver’s terrific “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” A farmers’ market devotee, Amanda was thrilled when Minnesota’s First Lady, Mary Pawlenty, expressed an interest in eating - and serving - more local food at the Governor’s Residence. Inspired by meetings with Lucia’s Lucia Watson and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s (IATP) Joanne Berkenkamp, Amanda consulted the First Lady (and her food budget) before settling on a weekly farmshare from Featherstone Farm (in Rushford Village, MN), one of the state’s largest and most consistent CSA providers.

Listening to Amanda describe the Residence’s experience with local food, I was struck by how incredibly normal it all seemed, how much it was like my own experience. The Governor’s Chef, Thomas Alexander (okay, I don’t have my own chef…), is not especially experienced with local food, for example. Daunted by the task of creating the first Family’s daily menu from kale, sunchokes, and burdock, Chef Alexander bought the Featherstone Farm cookbook and others, and got to work learning about Minnesota’s native, seasonal foods and what to do with them. Now, when the CSA box arrives each Monday (the Governor’s pick up is at the East Side Coop in Minneapolis), Chef Alexander creates the week’s menu from ingredients he may not have heard of before, working with the First Lady to ensure that the kids will eat what’s served.

Amanda estimated that the Governor’s Residence currently sources about 30% of its food locally (mostly produce), but she hopes to get the number closer to 80% within the next year, adding local meat, dairy, and eggs. This seems eminently achievable, as the list of farms and food producers anxious to work with the Residence continues to grow. Amanda also pointed out that the Residence continues to stay within its food budget, and she expects to start saving (taxpayers’) money in the coming months, as donations from food producers start coming in.

According to Amanda, “eating local is daunting in theory, but in reality, it’s not at all. It can be baby steps - you don’t have to change the world overnight. In Minnesota we have such a bounty. It’s like a playground. You’ll never feel better about what you eat.”

Guests at the Governor’s Mansion these days are served more local food than ever before, and they’re starting to notice. Guests are more likely to try local foods, according to Amanda, and they often ask questions when they see signs highlighting Minnesota foods.

When I asked Amanda what the plan was for eating local food at the Residence this winter, she hedged a bit. It’s likely the Residence will serve fewer local foods, she admitted, although she hopes that by that time, meat, dairy, and eggs will be sourced from Minnesota farms.

I had been saving my questions related to food policy until the end, and I directed them towards Brian McClung. I was impressed by Brian’s candidness when he told me that he could not recall a single food policy discussion in all his time working with the Governor. Minnesota’s deficit is nearly $5 billion, Brian pointed out, and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for Governor Pawlenty to be asking people to buy more CSA shares - not when there are core government issues that need to be addressed.

“Okay, okay,” I agreed. “But what are some of those core issues?” I pressed. Brian’s a very sharp guy, and he immediately answered “healthcare.”

“But isn’t healthcare intimately connected to the food we eat, the food choices we make, and the way our kids grow up learning about food?” I asked.

Brian’s answer surprised and delighted me. Yes, he said, that’s a good point. It would, in fact, make sense to discuss food in the context of healthcare.

I very much hope that the Brian and Amanda have me back to continue the discussion, and to celebrate the wonderful changes taking place at the Governor’s Residence.

This post was proudly submitted to Food Renegade's Fight Back Fridays.