Farms, Schools Link Through Food

Limp, greasy pizzas are

out; locally grown beets

and acorn squash are in.

REGION – For the first time in 15 years, public school lunches across the country were revamped this year to combat growing childhood obesity. One major change: Students are now required to take at least one fruit or vegetable with their meal in order for schools to get federal government reimbursements.

How does this governmental tough love translate locally?

Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS), which provides more than 6,000 student lunches each day (in addition to breakfast) is not only working to meet the new produce guidelines, but also to provide fresh and local produce.

"We revamped our menus and have gone through major changes to serve more fruits and vegetables," said Gary Derrigan, interim food service director for TCAPS. "We're concentrating as much as possible on fresh and we try to feature local throughout the year."

Local purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables make up four to five percent of TCAPS' total purchases, he said. Another seven to nine percent comes from other Michigan regions.

Depending on the season, the menu might include tomatoes from TLC Tomatoes in Suttons Bay, potatoes from Kitchen Farms in Elmira, squash from Bardenhagen Farms or broccoli from Lutz Farms of Kaleva, for example, and TCAPS continually works to add more local produce.

"We try to work with the markets [and buy] what's plentiful, and then augment with our broadline distributor," Derrigan said. "It only makes sense to support local."

Now, new funding will make it easier for local growers to get their fruits and vegetables to thousands of students in northern Michigan. Last month, the USDA awarded the Michigan Land Use Institute (MLUI) a two-year, $100,000 grant to help local growers enhance their operations and infrastructure to make it easier for them to meet school needs.

Food service directors have identified a need for washed, dried and bagged salad greens and cut vegetables, but many regional farms don't have the capacity or infrastructure to meet the needs of the schools, said Diane Conners, senior policy specialist in food and farming at MLUI.

The National Farm to School grant will help secure new, centrally located equipment for commercial-scale vegetable washing and preparation, making it possible for growers to scale up vegetable production.

It also allows MLUI to expand its cafeteria tastings, local food curriculum in classrooms, and school garden activities it currently operates in six schools as the regional site of the national FoodCorps program. Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District (TBAISD) is a key partner in the project.

"Schools, farmers, local food distribution company Cherry Capital Foods, the economic development community – they all want to see farm to school programs grow here," Conners said.

From fields to lunch trays

The MLUI launched the first farm to school program in the region at TCAPS' Central Grade School in 2004, with one farmer meeting with students weekly in the school garden on the same day the farmer's item was served in the lunchroom.

Since then, the program has flourished.

Farm to school is now operating in all of TCAPS' 20 buildings, plus more than 15 additional districts in northwest Michigan.

The latest sign of progress: Kalkaska Public School students are now drinking milk straight from their hometown dairy – Shetler Family Dairy.

While there's not a continuous set of data demonstrating the program's impact on the local economy, Conners said that will change when MLUI's new 10 Cents a Meal for School Kids & Farms project gets underway.

"There will be strong record-keeping," she said. "We should then be able to show economic impact and the impact on children's meals."

The two-year joint project of the farm to school program and the TBAISD aims to raise thousands of dollars so that locally grown fruits and vegetables can be purchased for nine school districts in Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties.

"Our goal is to raise at least $100,000, or $50,000 a year, to fund purchases of locally grown fruits and vegetables three days a week in the fall, one day a week in the winter, and two days a week in the spring," Conners said.

With enough donations, the program could be in place as soon as this spring. A donation of $10 would provide local fruits and vegetables for lunch for 100 kids for one day; $500 would provide local fruits and vegetables for 25 to 30 children every day for a full school year; and $5,000 would provide local fruits and vegetables every day for a full school (two classes each, first through fifth grade).

"Businesses are the backbone of our community and we welcome the support from as many businesses as possible," Conners said.

The project is supported by the Northwest Michigan Food & Farming Network, which aims for at least 20 percent of the food eaten regionally to be locally grown by 2020.

Local food-distribution company Cherry Capital Foods raised $2,625 for the project at its October Pigstock TC event, which featured a seven-course meal prepared by area chefs.

Cherry Capital Foods delivers local produce to 20-plus school districts in northwest lower Michigan. Last year, it sold $92,306 in local food to schools. This year, sales are $60,315 to date.

"There's an increase in sales this year despite the poor tree fruit crop," noted Kelly Lively, school food service liaison at Cherry Capital Foods. "There's been an increase in sales of produce like broccoli and spinach with the new nutritional guidelines for school lunches."

Turning kids on to veggies

Getting kids used to the new guidelines are Daniel Marbury and Kirsten Gerbatsch – two of the nation's first 50 FoodCorps members. They've been holding tastings in school cafeterias, helping kids grow food in school gardens and working with teachers to include local agriculture in their curriculum.

FoodCorps is a nationwide team of public service leaders that connect kids to real food. The MLUI brought the members to the region last year to work in six elementary schools: Traverse Heights and Interlochen in the TCAPS system; Platte River in the Benzie County Central system; and the elementary schools in Northport, Suttons Bay and Central Lake.

"The food service directors and teachers they're working with give them really high marks for helping them turn kids on to eating new fruits and vegetables," Conners said.

A math lesson is often surreptitiously wrapped into the day's menu.

"In a number of schools, they've taught measurements by having kids break into groups and create salsas," she said. "Those salsas are then taste tested and voted on by students at lunch and the winning salsa goes on the lunch menu. When the students do an activity in the classroom – such as tasting cubed winter squash roasted with garlic or cinnamon and voting on their favorites – they're more apt to try it in the cafeteria." BN