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Benton Harbor: Colleges Stock Up, Save on Local Foods

Connections to area farms help schools retain employees, students

August 31, 2009 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Great Lakes College
  Great Lakes College’s kitchen staff freezes fresh-picked local produce in the summer, and serve it to students during the winter.
Some things just add up.

For Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor and Andrews University in nearby BerrienSprings, summer efforts to preserve fresh local produce for winter meals have helped both schools hold onto more of their employees, too. This unexpected bonus has multiplied the power both colleges have to support the local economy as they buy local food and hire local people.

Lake Michigan College’s food service provides some 45,000 meals per year at conferences and other community and entertainment events at its Mendel Center facility, while Andrews University serves up to 3,000 meals a day during the main school year.

But both colleges' food service departments are fairly slow in the summer, when students are on break and fewer people and organizations book events.

Fewer meals in the summer means less need for kitchen staff, however; that forces many of the college’s food service workers to find other work. So, in the fall, managers have to find new people again, train them again, and ramp up the food service operation again—year after year.

But that changed earlier this summer, when Lake Michigan College and Andrews University each embarked on food service transformation projects.

Rather than buying produce from a big food distributor’s catalog, they decided to try buying some of it from farms all around them, which are part of one of Michigan’s most diverse and productive agricultural regions.

The colleges’ home county, Berrien, and neighboring Van Buren County are both in the state’s top three for fruit and vegetable production. And that’s in a state that is second only to California for the widest variety of agricultural products in the nation.

“Why shouldn’t we buy local?” said Larry Erdman, director of operations for Lake Michigan College. “Our money then goes back into the community, the same community that uses our facilities. It just strikes me as silly that we wouldn’t use the resources that are here: the farms, the food.”

Not Business as Usual
But that’s what usually happens. These two schools and the vast majority of other, similar food service operations typically bypass nearby farms and food businesses because it’s much easier to buy from generic catalogs and big wholesale distributors. Everything’s set up that way. Even the annual budget is designed around buying strawberries from who-knows-where in the winter rather than when they’re ripe in Berrien County.

Quinn Tabbert, food service director for Lake Michigan College, said budget planning is just one of the hidden complexities in moving from business as usual to doing business locally.

“We’re using money now that we would normally spend next year on things like strawberries or asparagus,” she said. “Everything is its own set of challenges.”

But the benefits of serving strawberry shortcake in February, she said, made with local fruit that employees put up in freezers in June—rather than from strawberries shipped from, say, California—are many.

There’s the love that people have for their hometown and the orchards and fields all around that makes meals with local foods more delicious. The fact that the produce is picked at its peak and processed just hours later makes it especially tasty and nutritious.

Local suppliers are also wonderful to work with, Ms. Tabbert said. “It’s nothing to Gallo if we buy 20 cases of wine, but it’s huge for a local producer. They’ll come in person and help you market it; they’re unbelievably cooperative.”

Likewise, a key component of the colleges' local food preservation project is the nearby Benton Harbor Fruit Market, where, throughout the season, scores of area farmers wholesale their fruits and vegetables to brokers and retail buyers.

Market manager Lee Lavanway is the go-between. He coordinates the colleges' purchases and transports produce from the market to the food service departments' doors.

"Lee is a champion for local food," said Melinda Smith, associate director of food service at Andrews University. "He packs a huge punch when he talks about it with us and with the students."

Learning and Growing
"Another benefit of having Lee involved is his expertise," said Lake Michigan College's Larry Erdman. "He can help us determine what kind of peach, for example, we should buy for preserving, versus fresh eating."

While Lee Lavanway is educating the food service staff, the colleges are also educating students, Mr. Erdman said. “We’re an academic institution; it’s part of our job!”

Ms. Smith said Andrews’ students are excited about the school’s project to purchase fresh and direct from local farms: “We’re working on this with a group of students involved in several different areas of environmental concern, like recycling.”

Then there are the students who need a job to stay in school.

“A small investment in our student kitchen staff is a mutual benefit for us,” she said. “If they disappear because they can’t find work, it’s a huge loss of tuition dollars.”

Such gains in employee and student retention have so far offset the occasional higher price tag of fresh local produce, which both schools were willing to pay anyway for the taste, quality, and hometown investment benefits.

At Lake Michigan College, the benefits of local food and employee retention are across the board, said Ms. Tabbert.

“Our dishwasher, for example: He picked up 10 extra hours each week this summer to help with processing," she said. "That changes his life for the better, just like it changes our lives and our farmers’ lives.”

This is the third in a series about food and farming in southwest Lower Michigan. Financial support for this Good Food tour comes from the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State University. Patty Cantrell is a program director at the Michigan Land Use Institute, where she has built northwest Michigan’s nationally recognized Taste the Local Difference program. Patty is also a 2008-2009 Food and Society Policy Fellow focused on promoting local food and farming as a New Economy strategy. Reach her at pattycATmlui.org.

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