Photo courtesy Renee D Photography
This story is part of our forthcoming “Healthy Kids, Thriving Farms” Farm to School report, which celebrates Groundwork’s 15 years of catalyzing the farm to school movement in northern Michigan.
Diane Conners remembers launching Groundwork’s program with schools the same year that she also compiled its first Taste the Local Difference® guide to area farms: “My main role was to introduce the idea of farm to school in the Grand Traverse region, and get people excited about it,” she said. “I also talked to every single farmer in the guide about whether they would like to sell to schools. Each was interested, but not everyone had the right capacity or the right crop. So my work in the beginning was largely matchmaking farmers to food service directors.”
Groundwork held a series of farmer-buyer meet and greets over the next dozen years, trainings for farmers called Get Farming! Keep Farming! that gave farmers skills to meet local market needs (which were different from industrial-scale markets) and two farm to school conferences. Food service directors said they valued the time they were given at the conferences to talk with other food service directors interested in farm to school purchasing, so we created a Learning Circle of food service directors to continue sharing ideas, which now lives on in a different form through our local MSU Extension.
Infrastructure also grew. In 2008, the new regional interest in buying local food sparked the launch of a local foods distribution company, Cherry Capital Foods, filling a major gap for food service directors and farmers too busy to arrange multiple orders. Groundwork also won one of the first National Farm to School Grants in the country, which included funding for what is now the MI Farm Cooperative, a cooperative of small and mid-scale farms in the region, to help buy equipment to wash, dry, chop and bag produce for the school market.
Still, food service directors faced an issue of tight school budgets. As directors told us, their budget issues aren’t always about the cost of food. They might have to make cuts because a record-number of snow days means they have less revenue coming in the door to pay for food, labor, and overhead for which they already have costs to pay. We looked to the Michigan Good Food Charter, a set of 25 recommendations from statewide groups and individuals to grow Michigan’s local food economy, for a solution that has now reverberated throughout the state.
Meghan McDermott, now director of Groundwork’s Food & Farming Program, remembers heading into area classrooms when she joined our organization as a FoodCorps service member in 2013, two years after this pioneering national service program started.
Groundwork structured her service around research results that we’d long championed: when children are exposed to healthy food multiple times in different settings they are more likely to later select these foods in the cafeteria. We would send our FoodCorps service members into our participating schools to carry out activities like cooking, gardening, nutrition education, and cafeteria taste tests. Groundwork knew these activities could also meet teachers’ education goals.
“We would speak at school staff meetings to see which teachers might want to bring healthy food activities to their classrooms,” Meghan said. “Sometimes it started slow, often due to a lack of belief in the educational value of cooking and gardening activities in the midst of busy teacher schedules and curricular demands. But it quickly grew to the point where our program was so popular that we were often in 11 back-to-back classes every 30 minutes throughout the school day.”
That popularity felt like success. However, one of Groundwork’s goals was to integrate farm to school activities into school culture and regular school teaching so that it would be sustainable after we left.
As a result, we shifted course, and with a plan that Meghan created. We scaled back the number of teachers we were working with so our FoodCorps service members could have more time working with individual teachers to integrate lessons into their existing curriculum plans. Groundwork also engaged Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District in providing professional review of the lessons we developed to make sure they met curriculum requirements.
Today, the Traverse Bay ISD maintains a farm to school resource website so that principals and teachers from anywhere in the state can now have a school-based site to find these lessons. Other school systems have adopted the lessons based on the professional ISD review. And Munson Healthcare, our region’s major hospital system, sees this program as a valuable community health strategy and recently secured funding to extend these lessons to even more schools region-wide.
Jen Schaap joined the Groundwork staff this year thanks to a prime example of a community coming together with the resolve to build its local food economy. The Local Food Alliance of Northern Michigan, a volunteer-led group working to enhance the culture of local food and farming in the Northern Farms Foodshed, recruited Groundwork to open an office in Petoskey, and bring our work in farm to school, food access, and farmer business support to their community.
We’ve learned that farm to school can go much further when people throughout the community get excited and involved. Jen has seen that first hand already through her work assisting the Public Schools of Petoskey with a fun activity called “Try-It Tuesdays”. The Health Department of Northwest Michigan developed the program, using Groundwork’s Harvest of the Month materials. Parents and other volunteers conduct taste tests in the classroom, using local foods that will also be featured in the cafeteria.
“I heard a great story where one of the grandmas of one of these students said that her fourth-grade granddaughter brought Try-It Tuesdays home and she began her own family version, which is called Try-It Fridays,” Jen said. “She makes the recipe at home on Fridays so that her whole family can enjoy it. Those are the ripple effects we like to see with what we’re doing.”
We’ve found conferences and events to be another way to bring people together, whether that means attending professional development opportunities around the country or hosting conferences of our own. In 2008, we attracted 330 food service directors, teachers, farmers, students, school nurses, and others to our first regional farm to school conference—the first farm to school conference ever held in Michigan. Another 400 attended in 2010.
Networking with other advocates for farm to school has always been key to the success of Groundwork’s farm to school program. From the 10-county Food and Farming Network of Northwest Michigan to the National Farm to School Network and the Edible Schoolyard Academy, sharing and learning from peers has served as a critical point for inspiration and program development.
And allies statewide, like the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems and Healthy Kids, Healthy Michigan have helped us take the local policy initiative 10 Cents a Meal for School Kids & Farms to the state Legislature, with the potential for it to go state- wide. So, too, have numerous everyday citizens who answered the call to contact their legislators to support 10 Cents funding.
Meghan McDermott is the food & farming director at the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities. Contact her at email@example.com
Diane Conners is a senior policy specialist at Groundwork. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jennifer Schaap is the local food policy specialist in the Northern Farms Foodshed. Contact her at email@example.com.