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No More Canned Spinach?

Congress may help local farms freshen school cafeteria fare

July 22, 2003 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Community Food Security Coalition

Congress may soon help local farms connect with school cafeterias, bringing fresher and tastier food to students and boosting nearby farmers’ produce sales.

School cafeterias across Michigan could soon be serving up carrots, beans, and strawberries from nearby farm fields if Congress passes, and the President signs, legislation co-authored by a Michigan representative. The bill, part of Congress’ reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, would provide grants of up to $100,000 for schools to buy food from local farms rather than from distributors importing it from thousands of miles away.

House Bill 2626, authored by Michigan Republican Fred Upton of St. Joseph and Wisconsin Democrat Ron Kind, would also help schools change their prepackaged cooking ways by funding the development of new menus and the purchase of equipment needed to store and prepare fresh foods.

Reps. Upton and Kind introduced the legislation on July 1. Since then two more Michigan congressmen, Mike Rogers (R-Brighton) and Vern Ehlers (R-Grand Rapids), have become co-sponsors. Similar legislation, Senate Bill 995, has been introduced in the U.S. Senate.

The congressmen say they need calls and emails from the public to help ensure passage of the Upton-Kind “farm-to-cafeteria” bill. Rep. Upton emphasized the benefits of fresh, local food.

“This program begins the process of looking toward local providers to furnish better nutrition for our kids,” Mr. Upton said.

Agriculture experts say the bill also would improve the health of local farm economies by supporting a crucial turn toward local markets such as restaurants, farmers markets, and grocery stores. Many Michigan farmers are attempting that turn in their quest to earn better money, stay in farming, and keep their land free of strip malls.

“The bill provides an ideal situation for local farms and local schools,” said Al Almy, Michigan Farm Bureau’s public policy director. “The farmer has new local markets and the schools have a local supply of fresh food products that are nutritional and safe.”

Michigan needs improved nutrition and a stronger agricultural economy, according to several studies. The Centers for Disease Control reports that the state has the nation’s highest combined incidence of overweight and obese people, while population statistics indicate it has one of the nation’s highest sprawl rates. Local and state leaders are learning that helping Michigan farms reach local markets improves the local food supply and slows sprawl by saving farmland.

Big Return on Small Investment
While Congress considers a national effort, Michigan is already moving ahead. Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm launched a pilot program this spring, “Select a Taste of Michigan,” that promotes locally grown food in Grand Rapids supermarkets. This initial attempt has successfully delivered fresher food to dinner tables and new profits to farmers. Asparagus growers — among the first to benefit from this new marketing effort — are giving it rave reviews.

“We’re ready to sign a contract today for the 2004 campaign,” said John Bakker, director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board. “The Select Michigan program was exactly what we were looking for to jumpstart our fresh market efforts and revitalize the industry.”

Traditionally, California and Washington growers dominate the fresh asparagus market. More recently Michigan growers suffered when cheaper Peruvian imports pushed prices for processed asparagus well below domestic production costs. But the Select Michigan marketing campaign changed that by helping Grand Rapids consumers find fresh, locally grown asparagus and vote for it with their dollars.

Michigan asparagus farms covering 12,500 acres now have a better, longer-term future because of the state’s modest investment. The Select Michigan program’s $260,000 first-year budget, which will promote nine other crops in addition to asparagus, amounts to just 1 percent of what it would cost the state to protect those asparagus farms permanently by purchasing their development rights — approximately $25 million at the state average of $2,000 per acre.

Movement Grows
Critics of the local food movement point out that serious obstacles stand between farms and local school cafeterias and grocery stores — particularly price and quantity.

The mass production food system easily outbids smaller farms for shelf space. Like Wal-Mart, large food companies can offer lower-priced items because they buy and sell in such large quantities. Most farms are stuck in this global distribution system. It’s difficult for other, more enterprising, often-small farmers to deliver the volumes of food that a hospital, prison, or school would need, when they need it.

Laurel Hamlin, the accountant at Washington Middle School in Calumet, a small town on Michigan’s Keewenaw Peninsula, said that’s the problem she ran into last school year when, as part of a federal pilot program to put more fruits and vegetables in front of kids, she tried to buy the food locally.

“I think there’s potential, but we have a cost issue here,” she said. “Schools are required to buy from the cheapest source. There’s also a seasonality issue; our fruits and vegetables typically ripen in the summer months when the kids are out of school.”

But that hasn’t stopped parents, farmers, teachers, and students in 75 school districts across the country. They are part of a growing, citizen-led movement that began in 1996 when two schools in Florida and California started the nation’s first farm-to-school programs.

Now such programs, including many in cold-climate states like Wisconsin and Iowa, serve some 500,000 students, said Marion Kalb, director of the National Farm to School Program for the Community Food Security Coalition. These programs include field trips and education about food and farms that breathe new understanding about the value of soil, community, and home cooking into a new generation of consumers, she said.

Local Connections
Sharon Cooper, principal of Flanders Elementary in Farmington, said she would welcome support for farm-to-cafeteria programs. She’s seen her own students defy assumptions that kids hate fresh fruits and vegetables. She’s also experienced the excellent service and quality that local vendors can give. Last year, as assistant principal at O.E. Dunckle Middle School in Farmington Hills, Ms. Cooper bought fresh food directly from a locally owned produce house as part of a pilot federal fruit and vegetable program that involved 25 Michigan schools.

“It was a wonderful success,” she said. “The company, Nino Salvaggio/Strawberry Hill, would go to Eastern Market in Detroit on a daily basis and pick out the freshest fruit and vegetables for us. They delivered it to our schools and sometimes made fruit and vegetable trays for the classrooms and decorated them with flowers.”

Ms. Kalb emphasized that the farm-to-cafeteria legislation is a key first step for making such initial attempts at localizing food supplies more widespread, permanent, affordable, and profitable.

That’s because the proposal would open cafeteria doors wide enough for farmers to make sales, start planning their production for this new market, and eventually enlist warehouses, processors, and distributors to help them supply cafeterias.

“We’ve found that when farms go from serving three schools in a pilot project to supplying 30 schools,” she said, “it’s much easier for them to be competitive because they increase their volume, which brings their prices down.”

Profitability and Longevity
This works for farmers, even when volume decreases retail prices, because they are still closer to the final sale and get a better price from local consumers than they would from large distributors. Currently, most of Michigan’s 52,000 farms receive far less of every consumer food dollar by selling to these global marketers. Larger farms with higher technology and developing countries with lower labor costs can sell for less than it actually costs family-scale farmers in Michigan to produce quality products.

That mass market reality is a major contributor to Michigan’s high rate of farmland loss — up 67 percent since 1993. It also contributes to the state’s obesity crisis because fast-food companies use ingredients from this global agricultural system, which are so cheap it allows them to keep their prices very low and their sales sky-high. With childhood obesity rapidly becoming a chief component of burgeoning health care costs — thanks in part to fast-food diets heavy in fattening, pre-processed foods — efforts to increase consumption of fresher, locally grown foods could eventually reduce health care costs.

“This is really consistent with what we believe will reduce cardiovascular diseases in this state,” said Karen Petersmarck, a public health consultant with the Michigan Department of Community Health’s Cardiovascular Health, Nutrition, and Physical Activity Section.

Increasing the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables children eat is an important step toward their long-term health. It also could open up a very large new market to local growers. Less than 13 percent of school-age children now eat the recommended daily amount of fruit, and 20 percent eat less than one serving of vegetables per day.

Patty Cantrell, an economist and journalist, manages the Institute's New Entrepreneurial Agriculture program. Reach her at patty@mlui.org.

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