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Survey: Schools Want More Fresh Food

Buying local could reduce youth obesity, grow farm economy

November 9, 2004 |

MLUI/Dana Goodwin

Children at Traverse City Central Grade School tried farmer Jim Bardenhagen’s fresh-harvested potatoes and found them “sweeter” than those usually served in their cafeteria.

TRAVERSE CITY — When potato farmer Jim Bardenhagen bit into a raw spud in front of a group of grade-schoolers last month, chewed it deliberately, and then swallowed it, he drew loud groans of “EEEwww!” from the shocked youngsters.

“It’s good,” Mr. Bardenhagen insisted as he handed each student a free, uncooked, take-home sample from his farm in nearby Leelanau County. Although plenty of eager hands reached out for his fabulously fresh potatoes, none of the kids were quite ready to eat them raw.

Not to worry: Mr. Bardenhagen was a big hit during his visit to Traverse City’s Central Grade School, where he talked to students during recess after lunch — when they’d eaten his potatoes baked. Twice as many kids as usual skipped the pizza that rules the hot lunch table in favor of trying his freshly harvested potato. They did it because they were intrigued when school officials told them a local farmer grew the potatoes; the kids gave him glowing reviews.

It was also a success for the Traverse City Area Public Schools’ (TCAPS) new farm-to-school pilot program, an effort to bring fresher, better tasting, more nutritious, locally grown food to students. The program, which is breaking new ground in this part of the state, is part of a movement that’s changing how students eat and how small- and medium-sized farmers do business.

According to a just-released survey, there is now so much interest in such programs that they could soon spread from adventurous school systems to many others across Michigan. Nutrition experts say this could greatly assist the battle against the obesity epidemic among young people, while farm advocates say such programs can boost farm profits. The survey by the Michigan Department of Education and the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State University shows many school food service directors are interested in buying local foods and 10 percent of those surveyed said they already are doing so.

Fresh Food Gains
Central Grade School joined that 10 percent earlier this fall when it began participating in a program designed by the Michigan Land Use Institute to connect local farmers with northern Michigan’s largest public school system. TCAPS’ food-purchasing department, school administrators, a parent nutrition advisory council, the local community college, co-operative extension, and health professionals strongly support the new program. Those working on the program, which so far has provided apples and potatoes, say they expect it to quickly gain popularity.

“What I would hope is that we will be able to utilize local produce district-wide to guarantee a fresher product for our students,” said Kristen Misiak, the Traverse City district food service director. Ms. Misiak said students are enthusiastic about eating the fresh produce because of the connection to local farmers. “They met the person who brought it there, instead of thinking the food came from some far away place, or not even thinking about it at all.”

Meanwhile, interest in farm-to-school programs continues to rise nationally, particularly with statistics indicating that childhood obesity is soaring. Food service directors at a recent Community Food Security Conference in Milwaukee, Wis., spoke passionately about their responsibility to provide students healthy, fresh food as a way to promote better learning. One director, when asked why she was paying more for fresh local cucumbers instead of buying cheaper ones off a mass distribution truck, said: “Because the kids eat it.”

The Michigan survey queried 664 mostly public school food service directors of K-12 schools in the state. The preliminary results, released by MSU and the state Department of Education on Oct. 26, found that, of the 383 foodservice directors who replied:

  • 10 percent said they had purchased local foods in the last year.
  • 73 percent expressed a high interest in buying local products.
  • 85 percent were highly interested if the wholesale distributor that already trucks food to the school district could also deliver the local foods.

Helping Farms Helps Children
Observers say that the potential for farm-to-school food programs is huge for both farmers and kids because each group is facing a crisis.

Michigan’s small- and medium-sized family farmers are failing at an alarming rate in today’s global bulk commodity marketplace. The state lost 17 percent of its farms with sales of $25,000 to $100,000 from 1997-2002, and eight acres of farmland every hour, or nearly 361,000 acres. 

For children, the statistics are equally alarming. Depending on their age, the percentage of children who are obese has doubled or tripled over the last 30 years. Unless children begin exercising and eating healthy foods, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in three children born in 2000 in the United States will become diabetic. Obesity also causes high blood pressure and high cholesterol, a particularly important factor in Michigan, which is second only to Mississippi in obesity rates and carries an estimated $12.3 billion burden of direct and indirect cardiovascular disease costs. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation warns these costs hurt employers by pushing up health insurance premiums and are major factors in slowing economic growth and job creation.

Michigan schools, meanwhile, spend more than $200 million a year on food — a huge potential market for farmers that offers them a way to diversify. Since school snacks and meals account for as much as 40 percent of many children’s daily nutrition, they can make a significant difference in children’s health and farmers’ profits. Studies show that farm-to-school programs succeed in getting children to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables because they taste better than similar produce grown and picked for long-distance shipping. Currently, less than 13 percent of school children eat the recommended daily amount of fruit; 20 percent eat less than one serving of vegetables per day.

Farms and schools must overcome serious obstacles in order to connect, including cost, delivery logistics, and supply reliability. Still, about 400 school districts have created farm-to-school programs in 22 states nationwide — up from just two in 1996. The Michigan survey showed there should be a tremendous surge in programs as solutions are found.

“There was fantastic enthusiasm for purchasing locally,” said Michael Hamm, chair of MSU’s C.S. Mott Group. “I think what the report says is that if everything can be worked out with respect to cost and the supply chain, there is a marvelous opportunity for Michigan agriculture to participate in school lunches in a broad way, and to have an impact on nutrition for kids and economics for farms.”

Promise and Hurdles
In the survey, 76 percent of responding Michigan school food purchasing directors ranked cost as their greatest concern. Cost is a big item, particularly because it goes well beyond the price farmers charge and includes labor costs for chopping broccoli heads into florets and other processing chores. Like many home cooks, school cooks have eschewed kitchen prep work in favor of using pre-cut, pre-washed, bagged produce. 

But some schools are changing back. Central Grade School cooks found they could make quick work of creating a Waldorf salad with local apples simply by using a combination apple corer-slicer instead of a knife. The Great Lakes Culinary Institute at nearby Northwestern Michigan College has offered to train cooks to use fresh foods efficiently. In the Louisville, Ky., area, a school district opened a 70,000-square-foot central kitchen to process fresh food and redistribute it to 141 school kitchens that serve 100,000 students.

In other cases, farmers are taking the initiative. In Florida, a group of farmers formed a cooperative in 1995 to collectively sell a large volume of washed, cut, and packaged fresh vegetables to schools. Today they sell to at least 15 school districts in Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

Schools and farmers also need solutions to streamline deliveries from far-flung farms to geographically scattered schools. The 23 schools in the TCAPS district, of which Central Grade School is a part, span 285 square miles.

What’s Next
In Traverse City, Central Grade School’s partnership with the Institute has both regional and statewide implications. The Institute will use lessons from the pilot project at Central to help schools throughout northwest Lower Michigan. The project is part of the Institute’s work to help build a regional economy that celebrates entrepreneurship, builds jobs from resources within the region, and conserves fresh water, clean air, farmland, and open spaces.

The Institute’s goals for the project are widely shared. Statewide, Michigan’s school food service directors said they also are motivated to support the local economy, in addition to having access to fresher, higher quality food for kids. The state and MSU’s C.S. Mott group will continue to analyze survey data, examine directors’ concerns more closely, and explore possible solutions and policy recommendations.

Efforts at the national level are also bearing some fruit. Successful lobbying by farm-to-school activists brought a new provision to the Child Nutrition Act when it was reauthorized in June — two-year grants of up to $100,000 for schools to buy food from local farms and equipment to store and process it, plan menus, and research local farms to match demand with supply. The next step is convincing Congress to budget the funds during appropriations committees meeting in January.

The 3 C’s
But the concept has proved so popular that, observers say, interested parents, schools, farmers, and grassroots organizations continue to move forward no matter what elected officials do.

Successful programs focus on “the 3 C’s”: Cafeteria, Classroom and Community. Hands-on experiences in the classroom and on the farm heighten children’s curiosity and appreciation for fresh, healthy food, particularly if their taste buds have been shaped by fast food. That translates into success for school lunch programs, which depend on participation for revenues.

That concept is what brought Mr. Bardenhagen to Central Grade School, where he, like a couple other farmers this fall, introduced students to the food in the lunch line that he personally grew. After eating one of his hot baked potatoes, one child told the farmer that it tasted “sweeter” than ones they’d eaten in school before. Mr. Bardenhagen responded by explaining that different varieties of potatoes have different flavors. Then another child told him: “You make good potatoes.”

There’s evidence the farmers are having an impact, and not just in the cafeteria line. Parent Kelly Towner came to school the week after Mr. Bardenhagen’s visit because her daughter, first grader Delaney Leach, invited her to join her at lunch. Delaney wanted Mom to meet the second farmer visiting her school, apple farmer Mark Doherty.

“She’d seen the potato farmer,” Ms. Towner said. “She told me he ate potatoes raw, and she was pretty excited about that.”

Veteran journalist Diane Conners coordinates the Michigan Land Institute’s New Entrepreneurial Agriculture program. Reach her at diane@mlui.org

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