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Our Voices: Farmers Find New Markets in Local Schools

February 13, 2012 | By Diane Conners

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Farmer Jim Schwantes almost didn’t come.

But Schwantes, who grows vegetables north of Cedar, set aside his skepticism and ventured out on a snowy day last week to join nearly 30 other growers at the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center, in Leelanau County. They were there to talk with the food service directors of five area public and one private school. The topic: Creating more business opportunities for farmers interested in selling to schools.

Schwantes wasn’t expecting much. In the past, he’s found that schools weren’t really that interested or willing to work with local farmers.

Daniel Marbury, a FoodCorps member working with the nonprofit Michigan Land Use Institute, is helping MLUI connect area schools to local farmers like Jim Bardenhagen, whose orchard is in Leelanau County.


It’s much easier, after all, for schools to order products from a large distributor and just heat pre-processed foods rather than actually prepare meals from scratch. That means it’s easier for big farms in California, Washington or even Peru, who use those large distributors, to get their produce onto schoolchildren’s lunch plates. And easier for big companies that sell chicken nuggets, too.

But Schwantes was pleasantly surprised. The food service directors of Traverse City Area Public Schools and the four public schools in Leelanau County have been meeting monthly all year, brainstorming ways to expand their farm to school purchasing and fresh food preparation. For example, they’re designing menus around northwest Lower Michigan’s growing season. And some have summer programs.

“We provide a consistent number of meals on a weekly basis,” said Sam Hybels, the former restaurant chef who now heads up Glen Lake Community Schools’ food service. “If you have something you can get to me at a decent price, I’ll buy it.”

“We are having a hard time finding eggs,” said Dave Ruszel, food service director in Leland.

“I can take greens and wash them,” said Janis Groomes, food service director in Northport. “I’m willing to come in June and process things and put them into my freezer.”

“If there was a washing facility, I’d be very interested in micro-greens,” said Gary Derrigan, food service director for Traverse City and Suttons Bay schools. “I’m very interested in table grapes.”

Schools still must deal with regulations, differing labor capacities, and a budget of about $1 to $1.30 a meal for food. But Schwantes and other farmers saw true interest from schools to work through obstacles, learn farmers’ needs, and make more local sales happen.

They’re also discussing other ways to expand the local food economy, such as a proposed “Food Hub” at Grand Traverse Commons, where there could be a business that washes, dries, and bags greens from multiple farmers; and ways to get them to schools, including through a local foods distributor.

“There’s really been a big shift in attitude,” Schwantes said after the meeting. “They were really interested in figuring out how to buy things.”

This column first appeared in the Feb. 11, 2012 issue of the Traverse City Record-Eagle. Diane Conners, senior policy specialist in food and farming at the Michigan Land Use Institute, directs its farm to school program. MLUI facilitates the “Leelanau Learning Circle of Food Service Directors” that planned last week’s meeting, and is working with Central Lake School, in Antrim County, on a similar farmer-food service meeting there from 2-5 p.m. on March 15. Conners can be reached at diane@mlui.org.

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