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Onekama School Finds Recipe for Success

Cafeteria’s local food pleases students, parents, teachers, and bean counters

November 19, 2010 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Vicente Ramos
  Linda Showalter and her fourth grade daughter Hope joined Katie Beeman and Kelsey Kosibosk for a delicious school lunch of beef stew, apple crisp, and milk—all using local farm ingredients.

ONEKAMA—The ingredients list seemed like one you might find on the menu of one of those high-end restaurants that feature locally grown foods.

But this was the cafeteria at Onekama Consolidated Schools, located in this rural tourism and farming community on Portage Lake, in northwest Lower Michigan.

On Wednesday, the cafeteria was bustling with parents, other visitors, and kids. The reason: The school and its food service department sent home a flyer inviting parents to eat with their children and experience first-hand the major change the district made in school meals this year.

Instead of pre-processed foods, the school now serves fresh food cooked from scratch and purchased as much as possible from local farms. On the menu Wednesday: salad bar, stew, chili, broccoli soup, roasted potatoes, baked winter squash, cole slaw, Waldorf salad, fresh apples, apple crisp, biscuits with honey, farm fresh milk, and, yes, pizza. 

Every single dish contained at least one locally grown ingredient.

There were 23 different items from nine nearby farms: dried cherries, beets, broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes, two kinds of lettuce, four varieties of potatoes—including blue ones—apples from three different farms, three varieties of winter squash, milk, stew beef, ground beef, and preservative-free sausage and pepperoni.

“The food today was awesome,” said Linda Showalter, who ate lunch with her daughter Hope, 9, a fourth grader at the school. “It’s the first time I’ve ever eaten lunch with my kids.”

It was also the first time in a long time that Hope had eaten the school lunch, because in previous years she didn’t like it. So her mom packed a lunch for her. Hope’s verdict?

“It’s really, really, really good.”

“It’s spectacular,” her fourth grade friend Katie Beeman chimed in.

This was a special day, meant to fully show off the new lunch program and celebrate local farms. But during the harvest season, Onekama is serving locally grown food every day, if not in every single dish. Now that Hope knows this, she says, she plans to eat school lunch.

It’s this kind of enthusiasm that’s fueling a movement nationwide to add more fresh and local farm products to the plates of school children. The enthusiasm is helping to trigger a major push from health and farm advocates right now for Congress to pass the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act during this lame duck session. The bill funds school lunches, and includes $40 million in grants over eight years to help schools increase the use of local foods from small- and medium-sized farms. And on the same day that parents and kids enjoyed lunch in Onekama, the U.S. House of Representatives made October national Farm-to-School Month.

Onekama’s experience—which includes strong community electoral support, soaring appetites for fresh food among students and teachers, and indications that the new program could turn a profit for the school system—shows what kind of difference these grants can make.

Getting to ‘Yes’
Farm to school programs sound as American as…apple pie. After all, they invest in good fresh food for kids facing epic rates of obesity, while also supporting struggling local economies.

But they also are a lot of extra effort for food service directors working on extraordinarily tight budgets. There’s extra time and labor involved in scratch cooking and seasonal menu preparation, building business relationships with farms, and nudging large food distributors to stock more local products even as federal policies often subsidize cheap purchases of processed foods destined for ill-equipped cafeteria kitchens.

Onekama used a $60,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Developmen grant to launch its new program, hiring as a consultant Renee DeWindt, food service director of both public school systems in neighboring Benzie County.

Kevin Hughes, Onekama’s school superintendent, heard Ms. DeWindt speak two years ago at a farm-to-school conference in Traverse City organized by the nonprofit Michigan Land Use Institute, which promotes local farms and their products with its Taste the Local Difference program. He was inspired by the can-do attitude she displayed while launching her farm-to-school program at Frankfort-Elberta Area Public Schools. 

“We started feeling we could do better,” Mr. Hughes said. “We’ve gone from ‘heat and serve’ to ‘cut and cook.’”

It took two years to make the change, longer than Mr. Hughes would have liked. But the district’s previous food service director didn’t seem to share the vision nor have the skills for change, he said. And the kitchen was too small and ill equipped for fresh food cooking.

“My ice shanty was bigger than our school freezer,” he said.

Mr. Hughes and his board went to the community, seeking a bond issue for capital costs that included a fitness center for students and the community, a “cafetorium” that combines the cafeteria with an auditorium, and a new kitchen with proper storage, work space, and cooking equipment.

The community said yes.

Then the county’s economic development corporation, the Alliance for Economic Success, stepped up to write the USDA grant that could get the district Ms. DeWindt’s expertise in helping to make change. Already, one local dairy farmer, whose milk Ms. DeWindt also started serving in her Benzie schools this year, has avoided downsizing because of this new market.

“This is one of the most exciting economic development initiatives that we have in our community,” Mr. Hughes said.

Recipe for Success
And, of course, Mr. Hughes needed to hire a new food service director. He asked Ms. DeWindt what was the most important thing to consider in hiring a new director. The answer: Get someone who loves kids, and who knows how to cook.

So Mr. Hughes chose an unlikely candidate, Jan Exo, who used to head up the school library. It seems that Ms. Exo was always holding fundraisers to support the library by selling her delicious, homemade soup in special staff luncheons.

The results: Kids are voting with their forks. The number of students eating school lunch is up 47 percent over last year. More than 75 percent of the school’s approximately 400 students are eating school lunch now. And that means more revenue for the food service program. Last year, for example, while still in its “heat and serve” mode, the district had to shift about $20,000 from its general fund to finance the food service operations. This year, the district is forecasting it will be in the black, perhaps making as much as $15,000 in revenues.

Teachers are eating school food, too – and they pay more per meal than students, for more revenues. About 15 of the school’s teachers’ regularly eat school lunch today, compare to only one or two before.

Mike Acton is among those parents who used to send their kids to school with a packed lunch. Now, his third grade daughter, Ella, and fourth grade son, Ben, eat both breakfast and lunch at school.

“With this new program, they eat here now,” said Mr. Acton who joined his kids for lunch on Wednesday. “This is really cost-effective for families.”

And even foods like pizza that are sometimes labeled as unhealthy can be healthy—and a lot tastier than pre-processed versions that taste like cardboard.

Mr. Acton, in fact, called it out for special notice when Ms. DeWindt stopped by to talk.

“The pizza here is phenomenal,” he told her.

“Isn’t it good?” Ms. DeWindt enthused. “That’s Randy Rice’s sausage.”

Diane Conners is a senior policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute and leads the organization’s Healthy Food for All program. Reach her at diane@mlui.org

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