Public Schools of Petoskey offers a shining example of how schools — and children — are becoming fans of the produce that local farms grow, providing increased sales.
Consider this: in 2015 Petoskey Food Service Director Beth Kavanaugh tried farm-to-school procurement, purchasing from two local farmers. Now, she contracts with nine local growers and the local foods distributor Cherry Capital Foods. She’s gone from purchasing 27% of her produce from mainly northwest Michigan farms to 66% in five years and now is aiming for 80% or higher.
10 Cents a Meal for Michigan Kids & Farms adds momentum to the local food trend by providing a reimbursement when the school purchases vegetables, fruits, and legumes from Michigan farms.
Activities around local foods beyond the cafeteria include Try-It Tuesdays, when a seasonal fruit or vegetable is featured in classroom taste tests. With the dedicated staff of Petoskey Food Service and a small group of mighty volunteers, samples are prepared and distributed to elementary classrooms on the second Tuesday of each month. A brief video or agricultural lesson about how the food grows and the local farm it came from is followed by a tasting on the count of three. Students follow the “Don’t yuck my yum” rule and are thrilled when they get to cast their vote with emoji cards that read “Tried It,” “Liked it,” or “Loved It.” This is how items like roasted carrots become a menu staple — votes are tallied and favorites are added.
Pop-up farmers markets at elementary school open houses (in 2019) brought students and families face-to-face with growers. Participating in an activity in late August was a big ask for local farmers, however, those who attended said their sales were good. Susan Sharp, of Open Sky Organic Farm in Pellston, Michigan, says, “The pop-up markets are a win-win for school families and farmers alike. The kids were really into buying things with the vouchers that were provided.”
It might sound like a small and simple thing, turning to local farmers to feed school children, but this way of buying has the potential to bring dramatic and valuable change to the health of children and farms across America. In thousands of communities, the school is the largest “restaurant” around, serving hundreds of people a day. Feeding children locally raised food would improve their health and lifetime eating habits, and inject dollars into local farm economies throughout the country.
“Purchasing local is a highlight of our food service department,” says Kavanaugh. “Our students consume more fruits and vegetables when locally grown because they know what farm the product was purchased from, the product is fresher, and has a higher nutrient content.”
Kavanaugh realized how popular local produce was with her students when, one day, a member of the district’s custodial staff “grabbed my arm, walked me to the trash, and showed me how much food is not wasted anymore,” she said.
This transformation has come about with the help of many, Kavanaugh notes.
This article first published in the Traverse City Record-Eagle Ag Forum, and is co-authored by Jen Schaap and Lynne DeMoor.
Lynne DeMoor is Nutritionist and Community Health Coordinator with the Health Department of Northwest Michigan. She has identified farm to school efforts as a positive strategy for health among children and coordinates a USDA National Farm to School grant for local districts. Jen Schaap of the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities Food and Farming team partners with the Health Department and community stakeholders to move farm to school activities forward.
Photo at top by U. Solstice Hannan.