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Network advances local food at institutionsPrint

Food & Farming | April 21, 2014 | By Diane Conners

*A version of this column originally appeared in the April 12, 2014 edition of the Traverse City Record-Eagle

A new Michigan Farm to Institution Network is helping schools, hospitals, day care centers, senior living and other institutions ramp up their purchases of locally grown food.

These are the places where our children eat up to two meals a day; where our elders are served meals at a time when it’s difficult or impossible to cook alone; where college students keep their brains working while rushing to class; and where patients and their loved ones get nourishment for healing.

They feed so many people that they offer a huge opportunity as strong new markets for Michigan farms. Michigan schools, for example, serve 140 million lunches each year and hospitals serve patients about 15 million meals annually.

The network, which launched last week in Lansing, will provide these institutions with resources to make sure as much food as possible is sourced locally, while helping farmers and other local food businesses tap into these important markets.

It all supports the Michigan Good Food Charter’s goal that by 2020 state institutions will source 20 percent of their food products from Michigan growers, producers and processors.

The new network is made up of institutional food service directors, farms, food distributors, advocates, researchers and others. It will provide marketing, procurement tools, best practices, research, training and other resources for food service staff, food distributors, processors and farmers alike.

One of the network’s biggest projects is a marketing and support campaign called Cultivate Michigan, which asks institutions to commit or re-commit to the 20 percent by 2020 goal.

Traverse City Area Public Schools in Grand Traverse County and Kaleva Area Norman Dickson Schools in Manistee County are among the first to sign on, and they will receive marketing materials, recipes, procurement connections and other resources for four products a year—along with an online “dashboard” to chart their progress in local food buying.

Cultivate Michigan resources are based on lessons learned from a pilot apple project in 2010 between the nonprofit Ecology Center—which coordinates the network with the MSU Center for Regional Food Solutions—and nine Michigan hospitals and health systems. Prior to the campaign, these hospitals in 2008-09 spent less than $300 to purchase only 1,200 Michigan apples. In 2010, they spent nearly $4,000 on 30,000 apples.

Apples are among the four Michigan products that will be featured in the campaign this year, along with asparagus, blueberries and tomatoes.

“There are lots of opportunities to increase fresh produce and farm to school with our schools in Michigan,’’ said Kyle Guerrant, director of the office of school support services in the Michigan Department of Education, in his keynote speech at the launch. “We are wiling to support and do whatever we can to be a part of this network.”

Cherry Capital Foods, a Traverse City-based Michigan foods distribution company, is a member of its eight-member advisory committee. And the launch featured one of the Michigan Land Use Institute’s FoodCorps service members to demonstrate how educational activities with students introduces them to good food while building local markets.

I’ve been thrilled to hear stories from MLUI’s FoodCorps service members about children’s reactions to local foods. “It was so good my taste buds went to taste town!” one first grader exclaimed about locally grown carrot sticks featured in the cafeteria and classroom.

And, in a much more self-serving way (as my hair gets ever-greyer) I’m hoping senior living centers have tasty, locally grown food if I ever find a need to live in one. It’d be nice to know I can still count on some lightly roasted asparagus from a Benzie or Leelanau county farm, even in my later years.

Learn more about the Michigan Farm to Institution Network and how to join at http://foodsystems.msu.edu/activities/mfin and about Cultivate Michigan at cultivatemichigan.org.

Diane Conners is a senior policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute. She directs MLUI’s farm to school program and is a member of the Michigan Farm to Institution Network.