A recent Cultivate Michigan Marketplace event in Petoskey brought together regional food suppliers and institutional food service buyers.
How do you change a food system? It’s a big challenge with a lot of energy behind it in Michigan as more people and organizations are supporting the local economy and community health. But small things can have a big impact, like creating a platform for growers and suppliers to meet institutional food buyers who are feeding a large slice of the population—our schools’ students.
In the fall of 2017, the Michigan Department of Education, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, MSU Center for Regional Food Systems (CRFS), Ecology Center, MSU Extension, Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, and The Flint Fresh Food Hub began planning four Cultivate Michigan Marketplace events across the state to provide that platform for local and regional food suppliers and institutional food service buyers to network and connect around local food. Cultivate Michigan is the local food purchasing and tracking campaign of the Michigan Farm to Institution Network, led by CRFS.
The Petoskey area has held similar events to match restaurants with growers and food suppliers, like Farm to Chef in 2014 in Boyne City, hosted by the nonprofit Crosshatch Center for Art & Ecology. Traverse City hosted a similar Meet the Buyers event at the Northern Michigan Small Farm Conference, where hospitals and other care facilities were matched with growers. Now, as local, seasonal fruits, vegetables and legumes are increasingly featured in area schools, the time was right to focus on school food service. Many area schools have received funding from the 10 Cents a Meal state grant to purchase Michigan produce, and Tencentsmichigan.org, a resource for community and schools, has recently published “Tools for Farmers,” guiding growers and food suppliers on how to work with schools.
“Farmers and food service directors are some of the busiest people,” said Meghan McDermott, Groundwork’s food and farming program director. “The work seems never-ending and they are always being asked to do more. It makes it tough to find time in the day to reach out to new contacts and develop new markets.”
The recent Petoskey event on February 13 hosted more than 30 attendees, including farmers from Charlevoix, Emmet, Antrim, and Chippewa counties, along with buyers from dining halls, school food service, and senior centers in the region.
"I was glad to connect with a local senior center,” said an Emmet County vegetable grower. “I don't grow large quantities, and the scale they are looking for on their salad bar might be a good match for our farm."
Food service directors at the event were also able to share techniques with one another on how they serve healthier options and reduce waste. School food service staff from Charlevoix and Cheboygan counties, for example, compared strategies for serving milk—a rare opportunity, as they aren’t usually in the same space to have these types of conversations. Peer-to-peer learning is a secondary but invaluable part of events like these.
“This event was an effort in getting the right people in the room at the right time so they could explore and find a good match in a low-pressure, mingling scenario,” McDermott said. “New farmers are creating their businesses in the Northern Farms Foodshed (Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet counties), and we’d like them to stay and feed the community the most nutrient-dense, good-tasting, local food possible.”
The next Cultivate Michigan Marketplace events are scheduled for Flint on February 28 from 4 to 6pm at the Flint Farmers Market, and Grand Rapids on March 1 at Blandford Nature Center. Ann Arbor hosted one on Feb 22 at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.
The four events statewide Cultivate Michigan Marketplace Events were supported by the USDA Farm to School Grant Program, the Michigan Department of Education, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and the Michigan Farm to Institution Network. To learn more about the Michigan Farm to Institution Network visit mifarmtoinstitution.org. Institutional food service buyers can join Cultivate Michigan at cultivatemichigan.org.
Jennifer Schaap is the local food policy specialist who coordinates Groundwork's food and farming program in the Northern Farms Foodshed of Antrim, Charlevoix and Emmet counties. Contact her at email@example.com.