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Snyder Samples Traverse' Local Food Efforts

Menu offered Farm to School, a ‘dime’ campaign, reading to kids

March 16, 2012 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Jim Dulzo/MLUI
  Gary Derrigan, TCAPS food service director, and Amy King-Six, Traverse Heights Elementary School principal, talked to Governor Snyder about serving local produce in their cafeterias.

TRAVERSE CITY—When Governor Rick Snyder visited Traverse Heights Elementary School earlier this month, he read a children’s book, Discover the Magic of Rainbows, to a group of kids.

The governor’s hosts wanted the book’s message—Eat lots of different fruits and vegetables!—to get through to the children. But they also wanted to get a message to the governor about their new project, called “10 Cents a Meal for School Kids and Farms.”

The educators, farmers, and advocates will soon be raising money to pay for the pilot, which will spend an additional dime on each student’s meal in several local school districts in order to purchase fresh, locally-grown produce.

The boost in support for farm to school purchasing is meant to benefit not only children’s health, but also the economy: In 2011, Michigan schools served 141.4 million lunches, so 10 cents a meal would send $14 million to state farms and food businesses.

The 10-cents idea is one of 25 listed in the Michigan Good Food Policy Charter, assembled by a statewide network of schools, organizations, and individuals looking for ways to improve health, grow jobs, and boost the state’s economy. The idea is now being taken up by Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District (TBAISD), the Michigan Land Use Institute (MLUI), and other members of the Northwest Michigan Food & Farming Network via their 10 Cents a Meal pilot. They will seek public and private sector grants, community funds, and other resources to support it.

Advocates of local food wanted the governor to know that many school children in northwest Lower Michigan are already eating a bit more of the “rainbow,” via healthier, homegrown fare, at their cafeterias. But they also wanted both him and Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), who also visited the school, to know that tight school budgets keep the students from eating even more fresh, local food.

Yet, when education and farm advocates spoke to the gubernatorial gathering, they did not ask for money.

“We are asking the governor, legislators, and state agencies to watch this project closely, help where they can, and monitor its results,” said Hans Voss, MLUI’s executive director,  “to help inform possible expansion in the region, to additional pilots in other parts of the state, or statewide.”

The kids and their families—invited to attend on a no-school day—got their own showcase of local food before the governor arrived and read to them, courtesy of Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS). Even the book Mr. Snyder read, Discover the Magic of Rainbows, was local, written by area author Dick Evans; it was part of the school’s March Reading Month celebration. 

Fundraising for Good Health, Economics
The Michigan Good Food Charter calls for 20 percent of food consumed in Michigan to come from Michigan farms by 2020, including food for schools. The money the pilot raises will provide significant help to three local school districts who have tight food budgets, just like schools across the country. Schools typically have only 20 to 30 cents a meal for fruit and vegetable purchases.

Some of that money, advocates point out, could go beyond helping local growers. Their extra spending power, for example, could spur new jobs in food businesses to wash, dry, and bag local produce for the schools.

Fundraising for the project began last week, when TBAISD and MLUI submitted a grant proposal to the MDARD for a “specialty crop” grant. “Specialty crop” is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s name for the fruits and vegetables that health experts say we should eat every day for good health.

Because the USDA grant program would not provide enough funding to include all regional schools, MLUI and TBAISD submitted a grant that will fund TCAPS, Benzie County Central Schools, and Frankfort-Elberta Area Public Schools as a start. Each district would match the grant’s 10 cents a meal allocation with an additional 10 cents from its existing school lunch dollars already being spent on produce.

Additional fundraising will expand the pilot so that other schools in northwest Lower Michigan may also participate, and so that the original three districts can expand beyond what the initial grant provides.

“TBAISD is proud to be a collaborative partner in this important initiative,” said Mike Hill, TBAISD superintendent. “Healthy students eating locally grown food will mean greater achievement and success.  This truly could be a model best practice for Michigan and the country.”

Cherry Capital Foods, a Traverse City local-foods distribution company, is also participating in the pilot. It will track the amounts of locally grown food purchased through the company by participating schools. The information, combined with the volumes that schools purchase directly from farmers, will help track the pilot’s progress. It also will help farmers better understand crucial information about the market potential and product needs of schools, and support building new infrastructure such as cold storage or operations that wash and chop vegetables.

Other food distributors that buy from local farmers and agree to provide the same information also will be able to receive part of the extra 10-cent spending power that schools will have.

Following in the footsteps of Oregon
The project mimics a similar pilot in Oregon that provided 7 cents a meal to two public school districts to purchase locally grown food.

The program significantly affected the local economy, according to researchers: Its $160,750 investment leveraged an additional $301,242 in local purchasing by the schools, for a total of $461,992.

That pilot impressed Oregon legislators and its governor. And, last July, Oregon enacted legislation providing 15 cents a meal to schools, largely to buy locally grown food, but also for school gardens and other education around healthy local food for kids. That funding will flow to schools through a grant program.

The Traverse-area advocates hope success in Michigan could trigger similar results in Lansing.

Farmers were among those who showed up to meet the governor and express their interest in the project. They included Steve Robinson of Silver Lake Farms, in Antrim County and Harry Norconk of Norconk Farms in Benzie County, which sell to Traverse City Area Public Schools; and Mark Coe of Calvin Lutz Farm in Manistee County, which sells to Benzie and Manistee schools. Triston Cole, who farms in Antrim County, also attended as president of the Antrim County Farm Bureau.

School food service directors also attended, including Renee DeWindt, food service director of Benzie County Central and Frankfort-Elberta Area schools and a member of the governor’s Michigan Food Policy Council; Dave Ruszel, food service director of Leland Public Schools; and Sam Hybels, food service director of Glen Lake Community Schools.

Gary Derrigan, TCAPS food service director, told the governor that schools would be a reliable market for local agriculture if issues such as tight budgets can be addressed. He pointed out that his district is effectively “the largest restaurant in the region,” serving 7,000 meals a day.

Building on the Governor’s Values
The governor is, in part, responsible for the 10 Cents campaign.

His words at last April’s Michigan Small Town and Rural Development Conference sparked interest in testing the charter’s10-cent policy.

At that conference, the governor said economic development initiatives should be generated from the ground up, not from the state down, and reflect the economic sectors that are important in each of the state’s regions. In the Traverse region, farming is a very important sector, according to proponents such as Don Coe.

The governor’s school visit, in fact, was timed to capitalize on the fact that he was in town for a regional economic summit co-hosted by the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments, and MLUI.

“School, farm, business, and nonprofit stakeholders in northwest Michigan have identified building farm to school markets as one of our region’s key opportunities for economic development, while also providing a positive way to invest in the health of school children,” said Mr. Coe, the managing partner of Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay. He also represents the Traverse Bay Area Economic Development Corporation in the Northwest Michigan Food & Farming Network.

The governor also remarked on the positive potential of farm to school initiatives in his  health and wellness policy address in September, and mentioned agriculture in his recent State of the State address, noted MLUI’s Voss.

“10 Cents a Meal builds on key values that we’re pleased that Governor Snyder has articulated over the last year in our state,” he said.

The new MSU Center for Regional Food Systems will watch the pilot closely and provide technical assistance. The center coordinated the development of the charter, along with the Michigan Food Policy Council and the Food Bank Council of Michigan.

The center is also coordinating the next Michigan Good Food Summit, June 14, 2012, meant to build on the momentum and success of the charter.

“This pilot will help Michigan children have increased access to fresh, local foods while advancing an agenda priority of the Michigan Good Food Charter,” said Colleen Matts, the center’s Farm to Institution specialist.  “This pilot can help lay a solid foundation for the 10 Cent Solution to expand over the coming years to other regions of the state, or even statewide.”

Diane Conners leads the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Healthy Food for All program. Reach her at diane@mlui.org. A policy brief on the Michigan Good Food Charter’s 10 Cents a Meal recommendation can be found here.And there is more on the Michigan Good Food Charter itself here.

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