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Feeding Michigan school children fresh, local producePrint

Food & Farming | October 13, 2016 | By Diane Conners

 

Watch the above video of the "10 Cents a Meal" celebration at Traverse Heights on Oct. 13.

 

Michigan moved to the forefront as a national leader in farm to school programming with the launch of a new, $250,000 state-funded pilot project that invests in schools’ purchasing power to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables.

The new Michigan 10 Cents a Meal for School Kids and Farms incentive program—inspired by a program that originated in the Grand Traverse region in a project coordinated by the Groundwork Center—will provide schools in 16 northwest lower and west Michigan districts with up to 10 cents per meal in matching funds to purchase and serve locally grown fruits and vegetables.

Three other states—Oregon, New Mexico and New York—have launched similar programs that provide funding support or incentives for schools to purchase locally grown food, investing in both local economies and healthy food for children.

“With this bill, Michigan joins just a handful of states that have taken this great step forward, demonstrating its role as a national leader in this work,” said Helen Dombalis, interim policy director of the National Farm to School Network. “We hope the success we celebrate today catalyzes a growing trend in this type of policy.”

The Michigan program is expected to put healthy, Michigan produce on the plates of an estimated 43,000 students during breakfast, lunch, supper and snacks. The 16 districts, selected through a competitive grant, served 3.8 million meals last year, many of them in schools where 50% or more of students come from financially struggling families who rely on school meals for important daily nutrition for their kids.

The 16 school districts are: Boyne Falls Public, Frankfort-Elberta Area, Glen Lake Community, Leland Public, Manistee Area Public, Northport Public and Traverse City Area Public schools in northwest lower Michigan; and Coopersville Area Public, Forest Hills Public, Grand Haven Area Public, Montague Area Public, Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System, Muskegon Public, Oakridge Public, Ravenna Public and Whitehall District schools in west Michigan.

“We think it has the potential of doing so many good things for our kids and for our state,” said state Sen. Darwin Booher, who led the effort to pass the legislation. “The requirements schools have for serving more fruits and vegetables, and good, healthy meals is the key to this. Our farmers can grow it. They just have to have a market for it. I want to see it go statewide.”

State Rep. Larry Inman, R-Acme, became a champion of the measure in the House.

Groundwork Center launched farm to school programming in northwest Lower Michigan in 2004 with one elementary school in the Traverse City Area Public Schools. Students were told that the potatoes they could eat that day on the hot potato bar were grown by a farmer they could meet at recess in the school garden—and twice as many kids as usual chose the hot entrée over pizza that day. Leelanau County farmer Jim Bardenhagen astonished and charmed the kids by taking a bite of a potato—raw.

Since then, farm to school programming has grown throughout the region, as it has across the country. In 1998 there were only two known school districts purchasing locally grown food. Now, there are farm to school programs in every state in the country and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a team of farm to school staff.

In northwest Michigan, Groundwork organized two regional farm to school conferences that sold out, first at the Hagerty Center at Northwestern Michigan College and then the larger Grand Traverse Resort & Spa. Groundwork also became one of the founding sites in the country for a program called FoodCorps, a part of AmeriCorps, that assists schools in farm to school programming to help kids eat healthier, from school gardens, cafeteria taste tests and farm field trips to classroom lessons like learning fractions by cutting—and tasting—apples.

Nonetheless, despite the enthusiasm of food service directors, teachers, parents and kids, tight school budgets kept food service directors from buying as much locally grown food as they wanted.

Michigan’s Good Food Charter, a set of 25 policy recommendations on how to build the state’s local food and farm economy, included the 10 cents a meal school reimbursement incentive idea.

Groundwork received funds for a regional pilot to test out the value of 10 cents a meal from the W.K. Kellogg, Oleson, Seabury and Utopia foundations, along with a major launch grant from the business Cherry Republic, fundraising dollars from the businesses Cherry Capital Foods, Fire Fly restaurant, Oryana Community Co-op and Perennial Harvest, and a grant from the Friendly Garden Club and individual donors. The regional, three- year pilot project started with three school districts and in the second year expanded to seven in three counties, ending last spring.

Food service directors and farmers alike said the extra funding made a world of difference, providing stable funding to grow purchasing efforts and try new things with kids.

“10 Cents a Meal has helped us expand our program, because anyone in school food knows that we make use of every dime we receive,” said Dave Ruszel, food service director for Leland Public Schools, and one of the seven districts that were a part of the original pilot, and also now the state pilot. “Ten cents per meal can be as much as 10% of our total food cost—our food cost being around $1 per plate.

“In Leland that 10 cents has allowed us to purchase a lot more local items,” he said. “And we have a lot of unusual items that you wouldn’t normally think that elementary students, especially first graders, would like – for instance squash soup, black bean and corn salsa and apple-kale salad.”

Farmer Jim Bardenhagen said the 10 cents funding has noticeably increased his business.

“I commend the legislature for passing legislation that makes state funding available to schools to help take the effort to a new level,” he said.  “The 10 cents a meal program has caused my fresh produce business with area schools to grow greatly. And the students are getting healthy, tasty local fruits and vegetables, which school food service directors tell us the students like and eat. There are benefits for all involved. We hope the legislature will see the merits of the 10 cents a meal program and increase the funding level so even more can be achieved.” 

The state pilot program is being administered by the Michigan Department of Education (MDE).

“The timing is right for this expanded pilot because USDA standards require more and greater varieties of fruits and vegetables,” State Superintendent Brian Whiston said in an MDE press release. “Additionally, surveys show that school food service directors want to purchase more local produce, and Michigan farmers are interested in providing to their local school districts.”

Colleen Matts, farm to institution specialist for the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems, which has conducted those surveys, agreed.

"A decade of farm to school outreach and research in Michigan has made clear that the tight school food budget poses a structural challenge for school food service directors to purchase and use more local foods,” she said. "10 Cents a Meal presents a unique opportunity to lessen that challenge and simultaneously invest in Michigan children and Michigan growers.”

Leaders in the state and northwest Michigan region celebrated the new state 10 Cents a Meal program on Oct. 13, Michigan Apple Crunch day, at Traverse Heights Elementary School in Traverse City.

Michigan Farm Bureau provided a quote to be shared at that event:

“Encouraging institutions to purchase more food from local sources is something that is extremely important, and undoubtedly has a positive impact on our farmer members producing food in regions all across Michigan," said Kevin Robson, horticulture specialist for Michigan Farm Bureau.