FRANKFORT–Sometimes timing is everything. Nearly two years ago 100 high school students at Frankfort-Elberta Area Schools staged a strike to protest the quality of their cafeteria’s lunches. The kids, tired of what Superintendent Tom Stobie has acknowledged was food "basically warmed up from a can," ordered pizza, had it delivered to the school, and pointedly opened the boxes in the cafeteria.
“It sent a strong message to us that they were not happy with what was being served," Mr. Stobie recalled recently. "I said, ‘We need to listen to what the kids are saying and try to make some changes.’"
And that is where good timing helped out: Around that same time, the Michigan Land Use Institute was urging the Frankfort-Elberta system to join its Farm to School program and, like a growing list of schools in northwest Lower Michigan, change its cafeteria menus to include food grown on local farms.
Frankfort-Elberta accepted the invitation and became part of a national trend that, powered by interest in reducing childhood obesity and keeping family farms in business, has boosted the number of farm-to-school programs in the United States from only about two 10 years ago to more than 1,000 today.
Like several other school systems in the region, Mr. Stobie’s took advantage of Institute-sponsored pilot projects and taste tests to help its food service start serving local food. Now, three years after the Institute first piloted the farm to school concept in partnership with nearby Traverse City schools, it’s clear that a number of schools in northwest Michigan are well past the tryout stage and are making farm-to-school an everyday fact of local school life.
"It has become a normal part of the ordering," said Jodi Jocks, dietician for Traverse City Area Public Schools. "We have relationships with the farmers now."
In fact, more than 30 schools in the region are now serving about a dozen local farm products, from apples to winter squash. Most schools worked with the Institute to figure out how to add local farm products to their cafeterias and bring first-hand experiences with farms to their classrooms.
Now the Institute and these pioneering schools will share what they have learned about using the power of local food to improve children’s dietary health and build new markets for area farms. On March 12, they will host as many as 300 people at a regional farm-to-school conference in Traverse City.
Four public school districts and three private schools are among 17 organizations producing the conference, which will be at The Hagerty Center in Traverse City. Called Farm to School: Healthy Kids, Thriving Farms, it will provide expertise about bringing fresh, local food to cafeterias; help schools, camps, and farms learn from each other; and provide practical tools to start or expand farm-to-school programs—from cafeteria food to classroom curriculum to homegrown products for school fundraisers.
Schools embracing local foods have seen powerful results. Frankfort-Elberta students are eating five times as many apples since the school replaced the bland apples it was serving—picked for their tolerance of long distance shipping, not taste—with juicy, local varieties. A Benzie County Central elementary school ditched its traditional candy sale and raised $6,000 in one day by selling local farm products instead.
Renee DeWindt, the food service director Mr. Stobie hired to transform school lunches in Frankfort-Elberta, is a true believer in farm-fresh food. She even compared the local and shipped apples at a school board meeting.
"If you were a kid, which one would you want?" she asked. "And would you rather have your kids eat this or go to the vending machine? The kids pick the apples. They’re delicious. You can taste the difference."
Jenifer Murray, personal health administrator for the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department, is excited by these changes.
"Nutrition is key to chronic disease prevention," she said. "And we know that good nutrition is related to good learning. To make changes in a school system that affects so many kids—this is big."
One place Ms. Murray’s seen big changes is at Glen Lake Community School, in adjacent Leelanau County, where she coaches the Odyssey of the Mind program. The school hired chef Gene Peyerk to transform the school’s food service to all-scratch cooking. His rice pilaf and homemade meatloaf are so good that teachers buy leftovers to take home. Chef Peyerk also works with a new culinary class to create fresh fruit smoothies, vegetable wraps, and other healthy snacks for kids headed to after-school activities.
"The line at the a la carte cafÈ at Glen Lake—it goes down the hall!" Ms. Murray exclaimed. "It was never like that before."
Making It Work
Success stories aside, what concerns administrators at schools serving traditional fare is the extra work it takes to start serving fresh local food. Schools must navigate often-complex regulations for certain purchases and can more easily purchase far cheaper, albeit bland bulk commodity products from the federal government. And if their cooks have been basically "warming things up from a can," it’s going to take more skill, time, and money to prepare fresh food from scratch.
Those are the kinds of challenges conference-goers will learn about—and the many different approaches schools are taking to meet them.
For instance, they will hear how the Traverse City school system, which has more than 10,000 students, established Michigan’s first known informal school bid system for local farms. Using input from farmers, Food Service Director Kristen Misiak refined her bid document to allow more flexibility in product packaging and delivery and more variation in kinds of fruits and vegetables.
Participants will also hear why more farms can sell to her now: A new local foods distribution company, Cherry Capital Foods, started up last year and is offering farms, as well as schools, restaurants and other local food buyers a more convenient way to do business. For example, Cherry Capital now delivers potatoes to the Traverse City schools from four different farmers who, separately, are unable to get their products to schools.
"There was such a need for a Cherry Capital Foods in our area," Ms. Misiak said.
And they will find out about how smaller school systems work with smaller farms that perhaps can only serve one school building, not an entire school district.
Ms. DeWindt, who now directs both the Frankfort-Elberta and Benzie County Central food services, which serve about 2,500 students, purchases all the eggs that local farmer Paul May can supply.
"I wish I could find an egg farmer for each of my schools," she said.
Schools also must think about food costs.
For example, the Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools this year made changes so dramatic that they came with a hefty price tag. The schools began buying local and organic food when possible, and also purchases antibiotic-free beef. The schools invested a $225,000 grant in kitchen renovations so cooks—recently trained in fresh-food preparation—can make everything from scratch. Another big step was to hire Beth Collins, a nationally known veteran of innovative school food service programs. Ms. Collins will give the keynote presentation at the March 12 conference.
Superintendent Michael Buell said he doesn’t expect the food service to make a profit, but thinks it will break even for two reasons. First, all-scratch cooking allows chefs to use leftovers and reduce waste. Second, Mr. Buell expects more parents to send their kids to school with lunch money instead of sack lunches.
Mr. Buell is horrified at reports that the current generation of children may be the first to die younger than their parents because of soaring childhood obesity and diabetes rates.
"The thought of schools feeding kids 180 days a year and playing a role in that is mortifying," he said. "We have to be a part of the solution."
Ms. DeWindt said that, compared to traditional cafeteria food, she sometimes pays more for a local product, and sometimes less. But she’s found so many ways to reduce costs and build revenues that the school can afford to spend a little more on local foods, said Superintendent Stobie.
"It has always been my philosophy to use local people, whether it is farmers or bricklayers or whatever," he said. "Besides, in this case, there is the freshness of the local food. I think it is important for young people."
It seems to be working. Ms. DeWindt has seen an 85 percent increase in the number of students showing up for lunch who pay full price. That’s a vote of confidence unheard of during the days of the Frankfort-Elberta student strike.