Photo courtesy of Petoskey News-Review
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.
Every fall morning, Chef Nathan Bates snips lettuce, washes leafy greens, and dices tomatoes plucked from a hoophouse garden behind his school cafeteria. Bates, a trained chef, is the Food Service Director for Boyne Falls Public Schools.
In a salad bar, he displays fresh cucumbers, spinach, squash, and apples delivered directly to his door by the local farms that grew them—Spirit of Walloon Market Garden, Bear Creek Organic Farm, Bluestem Farm, Friske Orchards—or by the local-foods distributor Cherry Capital Foods.
He blends 200 kale smoothies. And some days he makes a quinoa salad textured with dried cherries and folds it into beef tacos infused with fresh spices or the dried chiles hanging from the cafeteria’s concrete block wall, as though this were a gourmet restaurant.
In this tiny school of 200 students in rural Charlevoix County, six out of 10 students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, meaning their families’ incomes are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty line. That’s an annual income of $36,900 for a family of four. According to a 2014 study conducted by Feeding America, 15.7 percent of Michigan children experience food insecurity—meaning their families have limited or uncertain access to adequate food. In Charlevoix County, that figure tops 20 percent.
This makes school food, where children eat up to two meals every day, particularly important.
The Boyne Falls children adore “Chef Nate” for his devotion to them, and for his commitment to serving real food that comes handpicked and fresh, not mass-produced and wrapped in plastic.
“Thank you for the amazing food you give us,” one student wrote in a letter to Bates last October. “I love when you give us tacos. They are better than Taco Bell’s … When I walk into the cafeteria, I smell, and I just drift right to it.”
For Bates, serving fresh, local food isn’t a radical act, but something that should be commonplace in every school. “When I came here I was shocked that this isn’t how everyone does it,” said Bates, who joined Boyne Falls in 2013. “Let’s step back and do what our grandmothers would have done. We’re not revolutionaries out here.”
A flourishing farm to school movement: 15 years of history
Nathan Bates and Boyne Falls Public School are a shining testament to the impact of northwest lower Michigan’s flourishing farm to school movement. It is a movement that is benefitting schoolchildren both nutritionally and academically and, at the same time, is giving small and mid-size farmers a growing market for their crops and helping them stay on their land.
Groundwork Center has played a key catalyzing role in the farm to school movement since first writing about the idea in April 2002. We included this new-old strategy as part of a special report entitled The New Entrepreneurial Agriculture, which celebrated local farmers selling direct to customers in their own community as a burgeoning opportunity. Most recently, our 10 Cents a Meal initiative has inspired state policy.
So for the 15-year anniversary of our farm to school work, we thought we’d take a look back. We hope some of the lessons we’ve learned will help others.
The report which we’ll unveil next week explores how the farm to school movement in northwest Michigan grew legs and is moving steadily forward, what events and resources helped it gain momentum, who the key players and partners have been, and what strides they took to put healthy, local food on the plates and in the curriculum of students not just in Boyne Falls but throughout northwest Michigan, and beyond.
Jacob Wheeler is Groundwork's communications manager. Reach him at email@example.com.