A regional initiative to provide schools with extra funding to buy more locally grown fruits and vegetables for students has become a reality thanks to strong support from local businesses.
The program, 10 Cents a Meal for School Kids & Farms, is starting this fall at Glen Lake Community Schools and the elementary schools of Traverse City Area Public Schools and Suttons Bay Public Schools. The 10 Cent Fund will provide nearly $29,000 for healthy, locally grown produce served to school children in the three districts for one school year—three times a week in fall, once a week in winter, and twice a week in spring.
The districts are matching this 10 cent reimbursement with their own 10 cents from existing school lunch dollars, for a total of nearly $58,000 of produce for students and for the local food economy.
Cherry Republic, of Glen Arbor and Traverse City, made the fall launch possible with a grant of nearly $28,000.
“It’s the biggest donation Cherry Republic has ever made to support local agriculture, and we did it because of the added bonus of getting healthy food in front of our region’s children,” said owner Bob Sutherland. “This is exactly the type of project that I know my customers would be thrilled to support. Our staff is excited too. Many of us have kids at Glen Lake, and we’re talking about going up and joining our kids for a healthy local lunch at the cafeteria once a month.”
In addition to Cherry Republic’s donation, nearly $10,000 has been raised so far through Cherry Capital Foods, Oryana Natural Foods Market, Firefly Restaurant, Epicure Catering, individuals and the Traverse City-based Utopia Foundation.
“10 Cents a Meal is a true community project,” said Diane Conners, senior policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute, which developed the program with Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District and area schools. “The people who are making it happen are right from our region.”
Ultimately, Conners said the goal is to expand the 10 Cents a Meal program to other districts in the region, and to show policymakers locally and across the state the value of investing in great tasting, healthy food for kids while supporting the local economy.
The Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District will handle the 10 Cent reimbursements, developing a system that could be used by other intermediate school districts across the state.
“TBAISD is proud to be a partner in this important program,” said Mike Hill, TBAISD superintendent. “Healthy students eating locally grown food will mean greater achievement and success. This really can be a model for Michigan.”
Oregon and New Mexico created similar programs, and a 10-cent program is one of 25 recommendations of the Michigan Good Food Charter, a vision developed by stakeholders across the state to build Michigan’s food and farm economy.
“We’re thrilled to see this program take off,” said Kathryn Colasanti, coordinator for the Michigan Good Food initiative and a staff member at the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems. “We hope this pilot documents the positive impact on kids’ eating habits—and farmers’ finances—to show the value of implementing something like this statewide.”
The extra funding support for schools also comes at a time when Traverse City Area Public Schools has included farm to school purchasing as a key component of its new district wellness policy.
“I am very happy,” said Tom Freitas, the new food service director for the Traverse City schools, which also manages food service at Suttons Bay schools. “We can use as much money as we can to incorporate buying more local. This is definitely one of my passions.”
Freitas, who launched Ohio’s first farm to school program in Sandusky, Ohio, and other area food service directors have seen kids respond well to the flavors and fun experiences they can have with locally grown food.
“There’s a big difference in taste,” he added. “Students can tell the difference. I can tell the difference.”
Nonetheless, prices or the labor costs of fresh-food preparation—even just ironing out business relationships—has at times kept food service directors from purchasing as much local food as they would like. Schools, which face tight food budgets, typically have only about $1.20 per meal to spend on food, and only 20 to 30 cents for the fruits and vegetables that are so important for kids’ health.
Sam Hybels, the food service director at Glen Lake, was a chef for 20 years before taking his job in the school system. He quickly learned how tight school food finances and federal subsidies make it easier for him to buy food grown far away instead of from local farms.
“Funding like this helps us to promote and make progress in the farm to school program,” he said. “My simple mission in the kitchen is to buy local and cook from scratch. If I can do this within a working budget, I will consider us to be successful.”
Mark Coe, a farmer at Calvin Lutz Farms in Manistee County, is among the farmers working to build a market with area schools. His lime-green Italian cauliflower, Romanesco, was served in Traverse City schools last week. He said he’s heard excitement from school officials and farmers about the 10 Cent initiative.
“I think it is a win-win situation for everbody involved, incuding the farmers,” he said. “I think the fact that schools are going to have the opportunity to be reimbursed for purchases they make will encourage them to make more purchases. It will help offset some of the costs for them.”
MLUI and TBAISD hope to raise enough funds to offer 10 Cents a Meal for two years to measure its full impact, regardless of unusual events in a school year such as new school food regulations or crop losses.
The Utopia Foundation is accepting tax-deductible donations on behalf of 10 Cents a Meal. The foundation is matching the first $10,000 raised with an additional 25 percent match, or $2,500. Firefly Restaurant is donating $1 for each dessert that it sells. And Cherry Capital Foods is holding a second fundraiser for the cause with a local foods luncheon, during its annual PigstockTC event, at Lobdell’s restaurant at Northwestern Michigan College on Tuesday, Oct. 22. The $45 a plate luncheon will feature a talk by renowned food writer Michael Ruhlman.