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Keeping Up with the Jones, Tastefully

One school inspires another to try serving local food

June 9, 2008 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Thirty schools in northwest Lower Michigan now include locally grown fresh food in their menus—and soaring sales indicate students are glad to avoid typical cafeteria fare.

Sometimes keepin’ up with the Joneses is a good thing. That’s when it’s called inspiration.

Consider these vastly different lunch menus at schools just over 20 miles apart, in northwest Michigan’s rural, farm-rich Leelanau County.

Suttons Bay Area Public Schools: Chicken nuggets. Hot dogs. Domino’s pizza.

Glen Lake Community Schools: Chicken pasta primavera. Apple cider pork loin. Macaroni and cheese—with squash puree.

What makes the difference? A conviction that kids growing as fast as tender asparagus spears need good food for health and learning. An appreciation for food grown with care by local farmers. And the value of having the right person at the right time.

At Glen Lake, that right person is a trained chef whose superintendent and school board told him when they hired him last fall: Create healthy, flavorful meals for students and include as many locally grown products as possible.

In Suttons Bay, meanwhile, school cooks work in a tiny kitchen built in the mid-1990s, when, Superintendent Mike Murray said, most schools weren’t really cooking, they were heating up pre-packaged, often highly processed foods. It made no sense to build a well-equipped kitchen with counter space for chopping or sturdy, institutional-sized cookware to concoct fragrant soups.

Now, though, inspired by Glen Lake, Mr. Murray is hoping to eventually emulate what that school’s chef, Gene Peyerk, and his staff do: Chop, saute, and simmer approximately 90 percent of their lunches from scratch and turn kids on to the fresh flavors of just-picked fruits and vegetables grown by nearby farmers. Potatoes from Jim Bardenhagen. Apples from Sarah Korson. Asparagus from Harry Norconk.

Soaring Interest
Purchasing from local farmers was common years ago. But then large companies consolidated food distribution, started selling food from far, far away, and highly processed foods took over the American diet, breaking the connection between schools and farms.

Now, though, "farm-to-school" programs like the one in Glen Lake are growing across the country, powered by concerns over childhood obesity, a realization that good nutrition fuels good learning, and a desire to keep family farms in business.

Interest soared in the Grand Traverse region this spring, when 330 school and camp food service staff, teachers, parents, students, and farmers from Manistee to Petoskey packed a farm-to-school conference co-hosted by the Michigan Land Use Institute and the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District. They heard first-hand how Glen Lake and about 30 other area schools added farm experiences to their classrooms and local farm products to their menus.

Mr. Murray, who was already eyeing the Glen Lake program, said that parents, teachers, and other school staff returned from the conference bubbling with excitement.

"It generated a lot of enthusiasm to shift from what we have now," he said.

That enthusiasm is easy to explain: When schools shift to fresh food, the move generates new markets for farms, and engages kids in the pleasure of eating good food.

The Smell of Success
Sometimes that engagement shows up in amusing ways. Mr. Peyerk chuckles that his students—fifth graders in particular—now have such sophisticated palates that they let him know if the seasoning isn’t quite right.

"We make mashed potatoes with the skins on and call them ‘smashed potatoes’ and they said, ‘There’s not enough salt and pepper and garlic,’ he recalled. "There are times when they are right—when we are rushed and don’t stop to taste-test. They keep me on my toes."

He snuck pureed yellow zucchini into classic macaroni and cheese last fall after seeing the idea on the Food Channel. Now, he hears the kids whispering when he serves it, asking each other if they taste the sweet and subtle squash.

It’s not uncommon for Mr. Peyerk to simmer his soups for hours, and for the aromas from the gently bubbling pots to drift down the school halls. Students and teachers alike peek in to see what’s on the stove.

"They say, ‘Gosh, it smells great in there,’" he said. "That is kind of a daily thing."

Such moments might happen in Suttons Bay schools soon, too. The district made a start this year toward fresh whole foods with a fruit and vegetable snack program. Students are gobbling up everything from raw tomatillas to apples.

Starting from Scratch
Glen Lake moved to all-scratch cooking after the district partnered with the Michigan Land Use Institute to develop a farm-to-school program that entices students to eat more healthily by introducing them to farmers and the unsurpassed flavor of fresh food.

But Superintendent Joan Groening quickly saw that her staff didn’t have the cooking skills to use fresh produce in a big way. She feared that the only local, fresh produce that would make it onto the menu regularly would be apples. But the staff was interested and wanted help, so Ms. Groening hired Mr. Peyerk. It made all the difference.

"I am convinced that the way to do this is by hiring somebody who loves to cook," Ms. Groening said.

The change has upped the food service budget, but only a little. Because the food is so good, the number of kids eating lunch daily has increased from about 250 to 425, which brings more federal lunch dollars into the school. Because he’s doing scratch cooking, Mr. Peyerk saves money by transforming leftovers into new dishes. And now that the staff is trained, labor costs should decline. He expects eventually to break even.

The district considered raising lunch prices by 25 cents to cover half the extra costs. But with so many area families struggling economically, the district chipped in from the general fund instead. Ms. Groening and her board expect fiscal responsibility, but they don’t think school lunch should have to pay its own way.

"You don’t charge students to learn math," she said.

It Takes Passion
Tight budgets are a reality for Suttons Bay schools, too, but Mr. Murray said he’s so impressed with Glen Lake’s program that he’s willing to take some risks.

Suttons Bay’s current food service director is retiring this year, so the replacement may be one of the school’s most closely watched hires in years: A student group interested in healthier food asked Mr. Murray to include them on the interview team for the new director. He’s said yes.

Mr. Murray will shop restaurant auctions for good deals on kitchen equipment and hopes the state Legislature passes a proposal in next year’s school funding bill that includes capital cost dollars. For Suttons Bay, it will mean about $15,000 a year—hardly enough for building new classrooms, but enough to start retrofitting a kitchen.

He even took his food service staff over to Glen Lake one day in April to see what’s possible and how it can be done.

"We watched Gene making marinara sauce from scratch," Mr. Murray said. "He showed us which types of appliances in the kitchen he found most useful."

But that’s not all. Mr. Murray saw something in Gene Peyerk that is the hallmark of the best teachers, and the best farmers, too—those who rise early to harvest their crop when it’s freshest and best for the market, or get up in the black of night to protect tender plants from a freeze.

"What inspired me most was the passion that one person with a vision can bring to a whole operation," Mr. Murray said. "That’s what I’m looking for in the next hire at Suttons Bay. You have to have people with passion."

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

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