What’s for lunch? Farm food goes to school

TRAVERSE CITY – On a cold, bright morning in December, Mark Doherty was delivering Gala apples and winter squash to 18 schools in the Traverse City Area Public School system.

It’s a delivery route he’s happy to do. Doherty is one of the reasons children at those schools enjoyed locally grown produce all fall and into the winter, tasting Ginger Gold and Gala apples, Bartlett and Bosc pears, several types of winter squash, and Balaton cherries.

The farm-to-school program is an effort by the Michigan Land Use Institute (MLUI) linking local farms to local kids. It is part of a larger project by the Beulah-based non-profit organization, which works to provide more connections between farmers and purchasers across the state to make agriculture more profitable and, in turn, preserve farmland.

Central Grade School was the pilot school for the farm-to-school program when it launched in the fall of 2004. It began with local apples one day a week and local potatoes on another.

“We wanted to start small and help the food service directors, the farms, and the kids,” said Diane Conners, coordinator of the farm-to-school program.

But those apples and potatoes were a hit. Apple consumption nearly quadrupled after Doherty’s apples arrived in the cafeteria in October and continued through mid-January, according to Conners. The potatoes came from Jim Bardenhagen’s farm in Leelanau County. Both men met with students to talk about the foods that are grown so close to their own backyards.

“They were genuinely interested and had great questions,” said Doherty.

On the day local potatoes were offered, twice as many students picked baked potato as their main course against the toughest of hot lunch competition. That’s right, pizza.

It was such an immediate success that 13 other schools in the district got involved and enjoyed local apples all fall, with consumption up threefold between all the schools.

This past fall, the number of participating schools in the Traverse City district increased to 21, and Conners said neighboring districts are interested in starting programs with their local farmers, including Glen Lake, Benzie County, Elk Rapids, and Frankfort.

Doherty of Russell Ridge Farms has 20-acres of high-density apple trees trellised on a wire system, much like grapes, north of Elk Rapids. His farm is in partnership with King Orchards of Central Lake and Kewadin. Doherty is committed to the program for several reasons.

“I’m very interested in improving opportunities that children have with school lunches,” said Doherty, especially having flavorful and healthy choices. “I’m also very concerned with delivering the message about northwest Michigan fruits and vegetables to students, giving them a thread, a connection to local foods,” he said.

And, obviously, there is an economic component.

“The more apples that we can retail benefits me substantially,” added Doherty.

The farm-to-school effort is the first of its kind in this part of the state, but it joins some 400 similar programs in 22 states. Kristen Misiak, food service director for the Traverse City school system, said the district originally got involved as a result of a nutrition committee formed at Central Grade School that was committed to offering more fresh and whole foods in the cafeteria.

Central Grade School principal, Sharon Dionne, is an ardent supporter of the program. “My interest in all of this, of course, is student wellness,” Dionne said. “It made sense to us that the freshest food possible would be from local farmers.”

Misiak said the program was an easy one to support and expand to many more schools.

“Once we found the high quality and competitive pricing of the local products, it was no doubt we wanted to expand beyond a pilot,” she explained. “It took no work at all to convince the food service staff of the importance of this project. The products sold themselves.”

Misiak clearly sees the potential for the program’s success.

“We are in the very beginning stages of something that can become a great region-wide project and I think our department would like to see that through,” Misiak said. “Farm-to-school is becoming a nationwide trend and with all the emphasis on health and wellness, it fits in very well.”

She said before the program started you could walk into any cafeteria on any given day and see barely eaten apples or pears thrown in the garbage.

“With the local produce, the children are actually asking for the apples and pears,” Misiak enthused. “I’ve even heard of occasions where the students comment that their favorite school food is the apples, instead of pizza.”

The MLUI is planning to hold sessions this winter with grocery stores, restaurants, schools, and farmers who are interested in finding out how they can work together and share more local food with their communities, said Conners. The land use group is also making similar cafeteria connections with hospitals, nursing homes, and other institutions.

Once we get through the rest of winter and a bit of a dry spell for local goods, spring will be signaled by the arrival of asparagus to local schools from farmer Harry Norconk of Empire. BN