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Hans Voss: Local Farm to School Leadership Creates Statewide OpportunityPrint

Food & Farming | July 26, 2016 | By Hans Voss

Hans Voss: Local Farm to School Leadership Creates Statewide Opportunity

*A version of this column originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of the Traverse City Business News

The state legislature has put Michigan on the map as a leader in the national farm to school movement with an innovative state pilot program called 10 Cents a Meal that was started here in Traverse City.

The measure, which provides funds for competitive grants, will dramatically increase locally grown fruits and vegetables in school cafeterias in two regions—10 counties in northwest Lower Michigan and 13 counties in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids and Muskegon areas. It provides a match incentive of nearly $250,000 for schools to buy local food in the 2016-17 year, with hopes of taking it statewide in the future.

The funding is used to match up to 10 cents per meal, and it represents a striking policy breakthrough on multiple fronts. At a time when childhood obesity is on the rise, school children will access more fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables. It supports farmers by expanding important local markets. And it shows that Michigan still has the wherewithal—even in a tough political climate in Lansing—to innovate a program that sets a new national model to benefit kids and farmers. Right now, only a few states in the country have or are contemplating similar programs.

It may seem like common sense today (who could argue with healthy local food for kids?) but make no mistake, it took more than a decade of persistent community collaboration from local school officials, farmers, parents, and local food advocates—as well as concerted leadership from our region’s elected officials—to make it happen.

It’s quite a story really. In the fall of 2004, Traverse City’s school food service director agreed to try one local product a week at Central Grade School. The Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities (then called the Michigan Land Use Institute) arranged for products from farmers who could also meet with students in the school garden for lunch. Leelanau County potato farmer Jim Bardenhagen came first, and charmed the students with a demonstration of how potatoes are grown. He even chomped into one with a flourish and pronounced them delicious raw. Twice as many kids as usual picked the baked potato bar over pizza that day. The next week apples were a big hit. The media covered the story, soon other schools followed suit, and our region’s farm to school movement was born!

Advocates spent the next decade working with dozens of committed partners to spread the word and soon farm to school programs were up and running in more than 40 schools across the region. But school food service budgets are tight and the need for additional funding soon became evident.

In 2013, Groundwork raised matching funds from foundations and local businesses and partnered with the Traverse Bay Intermediate School District to launch a local 10 Cent pilot program, based on one of the 25 recommendations of the Michigan Good Food Charter. In the year prior, the three initial participating school districts spent $30,000 on local food, but after two years of the matching funding, they spent nearly $150,000 on local fruits and veggies, an average increase of 142 percent each year. Four other districts joined the program and the seven districts together purchased 25 different products grown by 36 area farms.

Those striking results, plus research that showed if the whole state adopted the 10 Cents program it could generate $28 million for Michigan farmers, attracted the attention of State Sen. Darwin Booher (R-Evart) who introduced legislation to launch the state program. State Rep. Larry Inman (R-Acme) and State Sen. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City) and legislators in the other region joined the cause. Legislators were so impressed with the program that they originally considered a $500,000 pilot that also would have included schools in the Thumb region of the state. With lower than expected state revenues, the pilot was scaled back, but it survived in the budget when many other programs were cut.

It’s an important moment for the local food movement here in northwest Michigan. After all the hard work by so many dedicated local leaders who created a strong track record to demonstrate the many benefits of farm to school programs, Michigan is now poised to leverage this region’s success to benefit kids and farmers across the state. It’s that spirit of commitment and collaboration that made this possible—and that makes this community so special.