** This article originally appeared in the May 17, 2014, edition of the Traverse City Record-Eagle.
If you are a northwest Michigan farmer who grows fruits or vegetables and you like the idea of local school children eating the food you grow—or you just want more sales—now is the time to explore those new markets.
The reason: The Michigan Land Use Institute and Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District are launching an expanded two-year pilot project that could mean up to $200,000 in sales of local agricultural products to schools in eight districts in four counties. We’re hoping this new initiative permanently sets the table for local sales—and good food for kids—long into the future.
The project, 10 Cents a Meal for School Kids & Farms, initially targeted the Traverse City, Suttons Bay and Glen Lake school districts last fall, thanks largely to area business donations. The budget, raised by MLUI, provides up to 10 cents a meal to purchase local produce three times a week in the fall, twice a week in winter and once a week in spring. Numbers are still being compiled for the initial start, but school receipts show a wide variety of produce purchased.
Last month, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation added an additional $30,000 to a pot of money that now totals about $70,000 for schools to purchase local fruits and veggies. We’re on target to raise a total of $100,000, which will be matched by the schools as they make their purchases. That comes to $200,000, all dedicated to bringing local produce to cafeterias. With the additional funding, Benzie Central, Frankfort, Leland, Northport, and Central Lake school districts will be added to the pilot, which will continue for two more years.
The news about funding comes at an opportune time.
For example, Traverse City Area Public Schools Food Service Director Tom Freitas approached Goodwill’s Farm to Freezer Project to develop sauces for the school year that use vegetables in abundance at the height of summer—including perfectly good vegetables that may not otherwise have strong markets because they are misshapen or small. This kind of creative thinking provides new markets for farms at prices that can be affordable for schools.
9 Bean Rows Farm in Leelanau County is working in conjunction with area Food Hub and National Farm to School grant efforts to start a facility for small and mid-size growers that washes, sorts, chops and packs fresh vegetables for schools and other markets.
Finally, Traverse City-based local foods distributor Cherry Capital Foods now has two employees dedicated to building farm to school sales. This is great news for farms that don’t want to deliver and for districts that choose more of a one-stop-shopping experience with a distributor.
So if you’re interested in farm to school sales, there are a lot of bridges being built to those markets. We hope local farmers will explore the opportunities. I know our students, and their taste buds, will be grateful.
Diane Conners, a senior policy specialist, directs MLUI’s farm to school program.
Diane Conners is a senior policy specialist in food and farming at the nonprofit Michigan Land Use Institute.