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State Bill Sparks Worries Over Local Farm to School Programs

Privatizing cafeterias could hamper food buying, preparation, innovation

April 13, 2011 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  School food service director Rene DeWindt’s superintendent doubts a private company could galvanize students and the community about local food the way she does.

TRAVERSE CITY—The Michigan House will vote soon on a bill that could force many schools to privatize their food service, raising questions about the fate of popular farm to school programs and whether school cafeterias should be seen as profit centers or, instead, as places to invest in fresher, healthier food for kids.

Many school superintendents in this rural, agricultural region of northwest Lower Michigan say House Bill 4306 could do harm by promoting a one-size-fits-all approach to food service while saving little money for the state. And they aren’t happy that their own legislator, state Representative Ray Franz of Onekama, is one of 15 all-Republican sponsors of the bill.

The bill, introduced by Representative Dave Agema, R-Grandville, originally  have forced all public schools to privatize food service, busing, and maintenance services. The final version of the bill requires schools to seek food service bids if their program is not making a profit.

Paul Yettaw, food service director at Lakeview Schools, in Battle Creek, and a board member of the School Nutrition Association, said 38 percent of the state’s school food service programs don’t make a profit.

Superintendent Joan Groening, of Glen Lake Community Schools, in Leelanau County, said the state shouldn’t dictate whether local districts can invest in food service.  Ms. Groening and her school board spent $14,000 from the general fund last year for Glen Lake’s $345,000 school lunch and breakfast program, which features almost all scratch cooking and uses local produce in season. The district also spent $17,000 on fresh fruits and vegetables for snacks after a grant ran out, because of positive student response.

When the district switched from “chicken nuggets and sugary desert” menus, student lunch participation doubled.

Food Service Director and Chef Gene Peyerk serves produce from the school garden, integrates food service with high school culinary curriculum, and prepares healthy food for after-school activities and concessions at sports events, sometimes quadrupling typical concession stand revenue, which goes to the sports teams.

It would be difficult to create a bid for a food service company that includes all of the ways in which Mr. Peyerk affects the school, Ms. Groening said.

“To me this is much more than just putting food on a tray and giving it to a kid to eat at lunch,” she said. “The pride that our students and staff take in our food service program—to throw all that out the window…It is very upsetting to me. These types of carte blanche decisions will be moving some schools backward.”

Little Savings, Potential Problems
Supporters of HB 4306 say the bill will reduce school costs and protect school boards from backlash over cutting school jobs.

According to the House Fiscal Agency’s legislative analysis, however, “The bill would have no fiscal impact on the State and an indeterminate fiscal impact on school districts.”

The Great Lakes Bulletin News Service was unable to reach Rep. Agema for comment, nor Rep. Franz, who represents Mason, Manistee, Benzie, and Leelanau Counties.

Some school systems, including Mr. Franz’ hometown Onekama Consolidated Schools, have seen their food services go from money-losing to profitable operations after switching from “heat and serve” to scratch cooking with locally grown food. If the bill had been law two years ago, when Onekama wasn’t profitable, the school probably wouldn’t have been able to make such innovative changes, Superintendent Kevin Hughes said.

He believes large food service companies wouldn’t work with as many local, small farmers as his food service staff is doing now. Moreover, he said, he’s already replaced vacant non-instructional positions with employees from management companies—much like “temp” agencies—in order to reduce the district’s employee benefit costs, with poor results.

“I’ve had privatized custodian services before, and it wasn’t good,” he said. “When you lose control, they aren’t your employees any more. You have to go through a whole different management system to get anything done.”

Success Stories
Onekama modeled its program after Frankfort-Elberta Public Schools, in neighboring Benzie County, where food service director Renee DeWindt turned around food service finances, is a major champion of farm to school purchasing, and galvanizes her community in ways that school Superintendent Tom Stobie doubts a private food service company would take the time to do.

An example: Ms. DeWindt recruits volunteers from the local hospital auxiliary to help showcase fresh, local food to students.

After annually “throwing” $70,000 of general fund money into “heat and serve” cafeteria meals before hiring Ms. DeWindt six years ago, Frankfort’s food service now either breaks even or makes or loses a small amount each year, he said.

“I would like to make a profit so I don’t have to dip into my general fund, but I don’t mind subsidizing it as long as the kids are getting a good, healthy meal,” Mr. Stobie said. “I’ve made that commitment. I think we have to try to educate the whole child, and part of that is making sure they are nutritionally cared for.”

Mr. Stobie said the bill could stop innovative farm to school programs before they have a chance to become profitable. In his experience, it takes time to upgrade kitchen equipment, develop cooking skills for fresh food preparation, and forge farmer relationships.

Growing Popularity
The legislation arrives just as interest in farm to schoolprograms is soaring across the country, galvanized by concern over childhood obesity and interest in preserving family farms and local economic investment. Chambers of commerce are recognizing the economic potential: The Northwest Michigan Regional Chamber Alliance last year placed farm to school purchasing on its list of legislative priorities.

And more than 200 organizations, businesses, economic development organizations, schools, farms, health advocates, and others have signedthe Michigan Good Food Charter, whose goals include Michigan farmers profitably supplying 20 percent of all Michigan institutional, retailer, and consumer food by 2020. Its 25 policy recommendations call for an additional 10 cents per meal from the state for schools to purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables, and grants for planning, implementation, and kitchen equipment purchase.

The Michigan Legislature passed a package of three farm to school billsin late 2008 that reduced bureaucratic obstacles to significant public school food purchases, and directed the state Departments of Education and Agriculture to cooperate in promoting farm to school efforts.

During hearings on HB 4306, critics reminded the House Education Committee of the state’s farm to school laws. So the revised bill  “encourages” private contractors to use fresh, locally grown foods.

But Leelanau County farmer Jim Bardenhagen, a recently retired MSU Extension director, who sells to area schools, doesn’t think “encouragement” is enough.

“This bill hurts Michigan farm businesses and gives business to privatized companies who will likely not buy from local farms near the schools, and probably will even source food outside of Michigan,” he said. “I hope everyone will write their legislator and tell them to kill this bill. If it passes it could have a major impact on everything we are doing on farm to school. It is such a great movement.”

Farm to School’s Demise?
News of HB 4306 is spreading around the Web; one article, headlined “Meet the Bill that Could Ruin Michigan’s Farm to School Programs,” strongly criticizes corporate food companies.

Other farm to school advocates agree that, generally, schools’ food service departments take the lead in farm to school programs and privatizing does not guarantee savings. But they caution against characterizing all private food service companies as detrimental to farm to school programs.

“We have found that the most effective programs are those where the food service director is interested in sourcing local food regardless of whether the director is an employee of the school district or food service company,” said Jennifer Fike, executive director of Food System Economic Partnership,in southeastern Michigan. “It is the passion and commitment of the food service staff that makes the greatest difference.” 

Meanwhile, the Michigan Commission on Agriculture and Rural Development, which oversees the state Department of Agriculture, has asked its staff to monitor the new legislation, but can’t lobby, said Don Coe, its chairman.

The bill, he said, should be understood within a political context: Governor Rick Snyder wants to see more consolidation of school and other government services, something Mr. Coe supports. He does, however, understand the concerns raised by school superintendents and farmers in northwest Michigan, where he lives.

“I understand their concerns, and I share their concerns,” he said.

Mr. Coe said he doesn’t believe HB 4306 necessarily means the demise of farm to school programs, as long as school districts, parents, and others demand farm to school in contracts. He also hopes advocates of farm to school programs speak up and use the bill as an opportunity to raise the profile of the Michigan Good Food Charter with lawmakers as the bill makes its way through the Legislature.

 “Ask if this proposed legislation fits in with the Michigan Good Food Charter,” he said. “And if it doesn’t, can it?”

Mr. Stobie, of the Frankfort-Elberta schools, said he will speak up. Mr. Franz did not mention the bill in February when he accepted a special invitation to meet with the joint school boards of Frankfort and Benzie Central Schools, which consolidated their food service administration under Ms. DeWindt. Her staff prepared a special local foods lunch for Mr. Franz to showcase their food service efforts.

“I was upset, when I found out he was one of the sponsors, that he didn’t mention it that day,” Mr. Stobie said. “We talked about a lot of bills that day. My message to him is I am not real happy with him.”

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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