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Farm-to-School Success Stirring State Action

Lawmakers, ag commission may make it easier to put local food on students’ plates

April 21, 2008 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Recent actions in Lansing may soon make it easier for public schools to serve locally grown food to their students.
LANSING—In separate steps that are aimed at bolstering the state’s burgeoning “farm to school” movement, a Michigan legislator and the state agricultural commission are each trying to make it easier for schools to serve more fresh, locally grown foods in their student cafeterias.

Last week, state Representative Lee Gonzales, a Flint Democrat, introduced a bill that would change state bidding requirements that make it difficult for schools to buy significant amounts of food from local farms. And Wednesday the Michigan Commission on Agriculture, a citizen body that oversees the state agriculture programs and rules, passed a resolution calling for a similar change.

Mr. Gonzales’s bill, which already has 15 bipartisan co-sponsors, including the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, is the first farm-to-school measure Michigan lawmakers have ever tackled. It reflects growing awareness among some legislators that making it easier for farmers to sell their products to local schools can help them stay in business, boost employment in a jobs-starved state, and encourage young people to form healthier eating habits by discovering the superior taste of truly fresh food.

Representative Gonzales indicated that his bill would be just the first step in strengthening the connection between Michigan’s farms and schools.

“This is just the low-hanging fruit, if you will,” Mr. Gonzales said, noting that Michigan is behind the curve on the issue. Other states, he asserted, have taken many other creative measures to help get more local fruits, vegetables, and other farm products into their schools.

At least 16 other states have passed bills that help farm-to-school programs take off. Among other things, those bills provide grants for purchasing local fruit and vegetables, the kitchen equipment necessary for fresh-food preparation, and planning time for food service directors to find farmers and write contracts with them.

Some states even establish special farm-to-school positions in their state departments of agriculture and education, or at least direct existing staff to spend time helping farms and schools connect.

Awareness Spurs Action
Now, as awareness of the economic and health benefits of farm-to-school programs grows across Michigan, more school personnel, parents, health advocates, and farmers are urging officials to look to some of these other state models for policy guidance. A recent, pivotal push for doing something about the state’s restrictive food rules occurred on March 12, when nearly 330 people from schools and farms throughout northwest Michigan packed the Farm to School: Healthy Kids, Thriving Farms conference, in Traverse City.

Attendees were incredulous when they heard about the state’s bidding rules, which are more stringent than federal law requires. The clamor for policy change that the conference generated—including an essay by one of the conference principals published on the Michigan Land Use Institute Web site a few days after the event—spurred Representative Gonzales to introduce his legislation now, rather than wait until he could further develop a comprehensive package he was already working on.

Mr. Gonzales said he’s worked with staff at Michigan State University’s C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems, which also identified the state’s bidding rules as important for food service directors and farmers not just in the Traverse City region, but in the Detroit and Ann Arbor areas, too.

The MSU researchers found that the state’s bidding requirement is “too cumbersome” for food service directors and farmers and that simplifying it would enhance economic development in the state. That step would generate more economic opportunity for Michigan farms, which are second only to California in the variety of products they raise, and would reflect the recommendations made by Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm’s state Food Policy Council a year ago.

That council noted that Michigan lost 17 percent of its farms in a recent five-year period—farms that might have been able to stay in business, resist sprawling development pressures, and grow more jobs if they had some assistance in tapping local markets, including schools and other institutions, like universities and prisons.

Coast to Coast
Michigan’s look at farm-to-school policy comes amid growing interest across the country in connecting schools to farms.

States that have passed some sort of farm-to-school legislation include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Montana, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington, according to the national nonprofit Farm to School Network. Tennessee is considering similar legislation.

New York State’s bill, passed in 2002, directs its agriculture and education departments to collaborate on ways to help farms and schools connect.

“There wasn’t any money,” said Bob Stern, a senior program manager for the New York legislature. “It was, ‘Find things and do something.’”

The idea, Mr. Stern said, was to create more markets for farms and spur other entrepreneurial development, such as linking apple farmers to a processor who could make apple slices. The result, according to an article in The New York Times last fall: New York City’s public school children are eating four times as many apples as they used to and went through several million bags of sliced New York apples in two years.

“It creates jobs and business,” Mr. Stern said. “We have a huge market—700 school districts, 3 million students, I think about a $1 billion school meal program. You can only imagine the possibilities.”

New York also has streamlined regulations so that schools—if a change in the now-stalled federal Farm Bill also is adopted—can provide incentives to distributors who purchase from local farmers.

And, Mr. Stern said, the state’s championing of farm-to-school programs had another powerful effect: It’s nudged bureaucrats, schools, farmers, distributors, and advocates to get to know each other, sort through perceived barriers like distribution and regulations, and “keep digging” for solutions.

Washington State dug and hit gold: Last month it passed what’s may be the most comprehensive farm-to-school legislation in the country.

Washington’s Local Farms-Healthy Kids Act streamlines bidding requirements, but it also provides dollars to schools. For example, there’s a $600,000 pot this year for state grants to schools to buy fruits and vegetables from local farms for elementary school snacks. And there’s $290,000 to create a farm-to-school program with 2.5 employees within the state’s department of agriculture. The new staff will promote and assist local food purchasing and curriculum development in schools.

The bill includes $600,000 to help low-income families and food banks buy locally grown food, too.

Washington’s new law drew support from nearly 100 organizations and businesses representing farms, schools, parent-teacher associations, health agencies, and environmental, religious, and children’s groups.

“We are talking about helping kids stay healthy and improve their nutrition and eating habits,” said Mo McBroom of the Washington Environmental Council, one of the bill’s leading advocates. “We are also talking about preserving our farms, including small and mid-size farms. It didn’t take very much convincing to get legislators to see how critical this change was.

“But passing the bill and getting dollars is never easy,” Ms. McBroom added. “We had staunch opposition from the processed food industry.”

And in Vermont, officials realized that many schools use pre-processed foods as core ingredients of their meals and do not have the equipment or properly trained staff for preparing lunches from scratch with fresh fruits and vegetables. So the Vermont Legislature enacted a law that over the last two years has provided a total of $200,000 for grants of up to $15,000 per school per year for food service training; purchases of equipment like freezers, and industrial-strength salad spinners and food processors; and food curriculum programs.

Vermont also invested about $80,000 in an existing food processing and research facility that helps schools save money on fresh food by developing recipes that combine low-cost commodity items schools get from the federal government—like pasta—with local farm products.

The result? Fresh-made minestrone soup that combines inexpensive pasta with vegetables available in-season from local farms, according to Dana Hudson, the National Farm to School Network’s key staff person in the Northeast. The schools also make extra batches of their local dishes and freeze them for later use, she said. One school even purees pumpkins after Halloween to freeze and use in pumpkin bread, soup, and muffins.

A No-Brainer
In Traverse City, the local public school and Catholic school systems are farm-to-school leaders, as are schools in Benzie and Leelanau Counties; more than 30 schools in those three areas are purchasing about a dozen local farm products.

Traverse City Area Publics Schools (TCAPS) food service director Kristen Misiak is trying to expand her farm-to-school program within existing regulations. Although Michigan law doesn’t forbid schools to buy from local farms, it requires a much more complex bidding process—whether it’s on food or non-food items—after a school spends more than $19,650.

TCAPS has bumped up against that threshold in its local food purchases for two years running. If the federal rule applied, Michigan schools could spend up to $100,000 before the more stringent requirements kicked in. Nearby Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana use the larger federal limit, and Representative Gonzales’ bill would raise Michigan’s limit for food in school to that same $100,000 limit.

Ms. Misiak is talking with state officials about how she could make a formal bid system as simple as possible. But, with a total food budget of nearly $1.8 million, she’d also like to see the cap raised.

“Yes, of course I’d like to see the cap raised to $100,000,” she said. “For a school my size $20,000 gets spent very easily.”

Raising the cap should be a “no brainer” for state legislators, said Jim Bardenhagen, a recently retired MSU Extension director who now farms fulltime and sells his potatoes, apples, and grapes to several northwest Michigan schools. Farmers hope to eventually see even larger sales to schools that have food budgets many times that amount, he said.

So bidding process changes should be just the start for the state, he asserted.

“The real test is to take it to the next level,” Mr. Bardenhagen said. “One hundred thousand dollars is great, don’t get me wrong. But you can see the impact that this could have for local agriculture and for our local economy.”

Diane Conners, a veteran journalist and former farmers market master, directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s farm-to-school program. Reach her at diane@mlui.org.

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