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Ag Forum: Farmers are paying attention to schoolsPrint

Farm to School | September 5, 2015 | By Diane Conners

*This column originally appeared in the September 5, 2015, edition of the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

I’ve worked 11 years to support schools in buying locally grown food, and I’ve learned how quickly summers fly. Parents know it. Teachers know it. Food service directors know it. And, of course, students know it.

School starts next week.

Farmers are paying attention, too. Never before has there been so much interest among schools in buying local farm foods. And these efforts, according to polls, are supported by parents who want schools to take care of their kids by serving them healthy food. Farms can play a big role in helping them do just that.

Consider: In Michigan, nearly 96 percent of voters and 98 percent of voting public-school parents believe that serving nutritious food in schools is important in helping ensure that children are prepared to learn and do their best, according to a poll conducted this year for The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Another poll conducted for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation found that 86 percent of Americans support the stronger school nutrition standards that were put in place as a result of the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Those standards call for plenty of the fruits, vegetables and legumes that Michigan farmers grow so well.

In fact, according to the Kellogg poll, 88 percent also support increased government funding to expand farm to school programs.

“Farm to School programs create healthier school meals, education opportunities for kids and new markets for local small- and mid-sized farmers,” said La June Montgomery Tabron, president and CEO of the foundation, when the poll results were released last month.

In 1996, only two farm-to-school programs in two states existed across the country. Now there are programs in every state and, according to a 2011-2012 USDA farm to school census, in 44 percent of the country’s schools.

A 2014 survey by MSU’s Center for Regional Food Systems, meanwhile, found that 54 percent of Michigan school food service directors reported purchasing local foods. The center’s 2013 survey found that 82 percent were interested in purchasing local foods in the future. And its 2012 survey of farmers found that 50 percent of Michigan vegetable growers were interested in selling to institutions.

Tight budgets were among the barriers cited by school food service directors, while low prices were a concern for growers.

Funding is something that our region’s pilot project, 10 Cents a Meal for School Kids & Farms, is working to address. State Sen. Darwin Booher is exploring whether this pilot could be expanded in Michigan.

“The 10 cents a meal program is good for the community, our schools, the students and area farmers,” said Booher, R-Evart. “It is a great way to help our children eat healthy food while at the same time supporting farmers by providing another local market for their produce.”

School may just be starting, but the math is pretty simple. The numbers all add up to growing opportunities that can benefit our kids and farmers.