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For Some Kids, Farm to School a Health Lifeline

Programs also boost local farms, change children’s tastes

February 3, 2011 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Vicente Ramos
  Kids like Aaron Reed often grab apples from the principal’s office at Platte River Elementary School—where Renee DeWindt’s farm-to-school program is making healthy, fresh produce very popular.

BENZIE COUNTY—Every school day, 12-year-old Aaron Reed makes sure to visit the school cafeteria salad bar for lunch, even if he’s having a hot entrée like meat loaf or pizza. He piles on the lettuce, tomatoes, and green peppers. Especially the peppers.

“I do love eating salad,” he said. “I like how fresh it is. And I really like peppers. Green peppers. Yellow peppers.”

Until this year, salad was not available at Aaron’s school. And it’s rarely been available for him and his five siblings at home, either, because his family has a hard time affording it.

But now his school district has a food service director deeply committed to serving fresh and locally grown food, Renee DeWindt. She has placed salad bars in all eight school cafeterias she manages in two districts—Benzie County Central, which Aaron attends, and Frankfort-Elberta Area.

Ms. DeWindt’s fresh-and-local-foods menu is one that plenty of parents would prefer, but for financially struggling families like Aaron’s it’s a godsend. Their kids really depend on schools for good nutrition. Well-off families can pack lunch for their kids if they don’t like the school’s menu, but kids from financially strapped families qualify for federally subsidized free or reduced-price school lunches, and those are hard to pass up.

“It is not out of my pocket,” explained Shannon Reed about why her son Aaron eats at Benzie Central every school day. “I hate to say it like that, but it is expensive in the store. A family of eight, you buy fresh fruits and vegetables and it is gone in a day and a half.”

She tries, she says, to serve healthy food at home—fish, chicken, broccoli that she froze in season. But she has to stretch food stamps, and sometimes has to get food from a food pantry.

“We get Spaghettios sometimes for lunch,” she said.  “And we do have boxed macaroni and cheese. Sometimes I break down and buy hotdogs. I don’t like to buy that stuff. But, sometimes we have to fill in.”

Tight Family Budgets
Ms. DeWindt is well aware that there are lots of families like the Reeds depending on her for good food for their kids. This year, 54 percent of students attending the Frankfort-Elberta school district qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. At Benzie Central, 65 percent do. In one of Benzie Central’s elementary schools, the percent jumped from 44 percent three years ago to 61 percent now.  

It’s hardly just Benzie County that’s having a problem. Forty-five percent of the approximately 30,000 kids attending school in the region’s six counties received free or reduced-price lunches in 2009, compared to 42 percent statewide. In some school buildings, including at Benzie Central, it’s nearly 80 percent of the kids.

“Families that never before had gotten free or reduced lunches now all of a sudden are, because they are losing jobs or they’ve been laid off,” Ms. DeWindt said. “I had one woman call me and say, ‘They’ve cut me down to one day a week.’”

Startled by those statistics, Ms. DeWindt used another federal program last summer that funds schools and nonprofit organizations to provide meals for anyone when school is out, as long as their schools have high free and reduced lunch rates. As Ms. DeWindt says, family budgets are just as tight when classes aren’t in session. 

The summer program, which provided 10 food service jobs, served a variety of fresh and locally grown foods—fruit, vegetables, eggs, milk, and meat—to 500 kids a day at six different sites. It added up to 47,000 meals.

Shannon Reed sent her six kids every day.

Power, Popularity of ‘Local’
The summer program provided another bonus: Ms. DeWindt spent money with local farmers, which pleases her greatly: In addition to good nutrition, Ms. DeWindt also believes in supporting the local economy.

Much to her delight, the wider community believes in it too. When she attended a recent Benzie County Grand Vision event—a local follow-up to the two-year, six-county, 15,000-citizen process that came up with a regional growth strategy—she got an earful from parents happy she is buying from local farmers.

“Their friends and neighbors are farmers,” Ms DeWindt said. “We have these little towns, and just a blink away are the farms. One thing people don’t want to see—and they said this at the Grand Vision meeting—they don’t want to see more golf courses. Farmers can’t make a living off of farming? The only way they can make any money is by selling it for a golf course? That is ridiculous.”

Benzie County beef farmer Randy Rice, whose hamburger, stew beef, and sulfite-free hot dogs, sausage, and pepperoni Ms. DeWindt features in her cafeterias, says school sales make a big difference.

“It’s helped stabilize my business,” he said. “And it means more than just money to me. I am a fourth-generation farmer, and this could mean that I will be able to pass my farm on to my children rather than sell to a developer or go into foreclosure.”

A study of two similar Oregon programsshowed that each dollar schools spent on locally grown food generated an additional 87 cents in local economic activity. And a recent Minnesota study of a five-county area with about 21,000 students found school purchases could provide a $430,000 annual economic boost—and even more if schools invest in ways to even minimally prepare food, like chopping and washing it.

It’s Growing
The farm-to-school movement is growing.

For example, the new federal Child Nutrition Act, which governs school lunches, includes $40 million to help schools increase the use of locally grown foods from small- and medium-sized farms. And the new Michigan Good Food Charter promotes state and local policies that will help schools and other community institutions like hospitals purchase more local farm products.

Today nearly 10,000 schools nationwide are serving local farm products, compared to only about two 12 years ago. More than 40 Grand Traverse region schools or early childhood centers are among them. But the amount varies due to school policy, funding, the focus of economic development programs, and individual efforts like Ms. DeWindt’s. For example:

  • The Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools has a school board-approved wellness policy, the Life Balance Initiative, which emphasizes fresh and local cafeteria food, along with gardens and other curriculum activities to encourage healthy lifestyles.
  • The Traverse City Area Public Schools is exploring options to serve minimally processed local produce that comes into season when school is out. Last summer school food service staff froze 1,000 pounds of strawberries to serve to kids this school year.
  • The Glen Lake schools hired a chef to transform its food service to scratch cooking. 
  • The Onekama Public Schools in Manistee County passed a bond issue that included building a new school kitchen equipped for scratch cooking, which makes a difference. Ms. DeWindt serves baked fresh chicken in schools with convection ovens; she can’t in schools that only have “heat and serve” facilities.  
  • Manistee County’s economic development corporation, the Alliance for Economic Success, secured a grant for the Onekama Schools to tap into Ms. DeWindt’s expertise in buying and serving local food. This multi-county effort also will look at opportunities to ramp up joint food processing, storage, and purchases.
  • The Traverse Bay Economic Development Corporation, which serves the five counties of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, will hire a local foods business development director to ensure the chamber’s participation and support of agriculture-based economic development in the region.
  • Nationally, chefs are helping schools with food service and student cooking events; locally, chefs have contacted the nonprofit Michigan Land Use Institute, which connects farms to schools, to offer similar assistance.

It’s these kinds of civic policies and activities that anyone can advocate for. In this region, the Grand Vision’s Northwest Michigan Food & Farming Network is assisting, sharing innovative models and catalyzing well-planned, collaborative efforts. 

Schools, for example, could purchase locally grown salad greens, but to meet their demand farmers might need to invest in non-heated greenhouses that allow growing greens in the fall and early spring, beyond the regular season. They might need training in greenhouse production and access to related business entrepreneurs to provide washing, bagging, refrigeration, and delivery—to schools like Aaron’s, so he can eat local lettuce.

More Taste, Lee Mess
Programs like Ms. DeWindt’s are actually changing children’s taste for food. 

She said kids taste the difference when she serves fresh, locally grown products. That means less waste, which saves her money even if buying local sometimes costs a bit more.

A few years ago, when she started serving local apples, kids gobbled up five times as many than when the apples were from far away and grown more for withstanding transportation and handling than for flavor.

This year, to help a local farmer avoid selling some of his cows because business was slow, she started serving local milk. She has kids pour leftover milk into a bucket to avoid messing up the trash cans.

When the kids drink milk from the standard cardboard cartons, they leave behind about two gallons of wasted milk. But when it’s the local milk from Cream Cup Dairy, she said, “It’s not even a cup. You see this and it is remarkable.”

Ms. DeWindt offered one more insight: Her lowest-income schools are the ones where kids eat the most fruits and vegetables. Aaron’s school is one. At Platte River Elementary the 360-students chomp through 12 cases of apples a week. At another school where the kids come from more well off families, however, they go through just two cases a week. Ms. DeWindt thinks it’s because the better-off kids already get fresh produce at home.

“For my low-income kids, it is a novelty,” she said. “The fresh fruits and vegetables, they gobble it up like it is gold.”

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

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