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Region Sets Table for Healthier Kids

Conference will boost “farm to school” local food programs

December 21, 2009 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Benzie Central Schools
  Students in Benzie Central and Frankfort-Elberta schools buy five times more apples in their cafeteria when they are locally grown rather than imported from thousands of miles away.
Imagine school food service directors creating a regional cookbook that features seasonal, kid-friendly, healthy, locally grown foods.

Or students in the fresh air of their school’s garden, learning the science of plants, the history of foods grown in different cultures, and an appreciation for the flavors of really fresh veggies.

Farm to School: Setting the Table for Wellness,” a regional conference slated for March 15 at the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa, in Acme, aims to nurture healthy eating, innovative learning, and more business with area farms. The conference targets Northwest Michigan schools, camps, parents, and others interested in children’s health, plus farmers seeking new business.

“We are encouraging schools and camps to send teams of Wellness Champions to the conference: Students, teachers, administrators, food service staff, school board members, parents, school nurses, farmers, and anyone else interested in healthy eating for kids,” said Laurie Bassett, school health coordinator at Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District.

TBA-ISD is the conference’s co-organizer, along with the nonprofit Michigan Land Use Institute, which publishes the Taste the Local Difference guide to area farms and helps connect schools to farmers for cafeteria, snack, or fundraiser products and educational opportunities.

More than 30 schools in the region now serve about a dozen locally grown products, from apples and winter squash, to eggs and meat. Last year, the Traverse City Area Public Schools’ farm to school program was featured in a short video entitled “Cooks for Kids—Healthy Cooking Across America,” which was produced by the National Food Service Management Institute. The Glen Lake Public Schools and Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools have earned strong reputations for cooking meals from scratch, and with local foods in season.

And kids love the flavors and hands-on experiences that these farm connections provide. After three years, for example, Benzie County School Food Service Director Renee DeWindt still reports that each spring, when she runs out of local apples, students spurn the out-of-state ones she substitutes. They eat five times more apples when she serves the juicier, tastier local fruit.

Setting the Table for Wellness—and Policy
The conference will promote that kind of healthy eating. It will focus closely on ways schools and camps can merge farm-to-school ideas with wellness policies to build broad support for such innovative practices, making sure they continue even if an inspired food service director or teacher leaves a particular school.

The federal government requires school wellness policies of any school district accepting public school lunch dollars. They can do anything from eliminating junk food in vending machines to outlining goals for purchasing fresh, local food and building learning gardens.

But any camp or school can create a wellness policy, regardless of federal funds. It’s a way to bring diverse people from a school or camp community together to brainstorm ways to promote wellness and review progress each year, Ms. Bassett said.

Conference participants—after a morning packed with presentations on new farm-to-school ideas and tools—will brainstorm and share experiences with their colleagues from throughout the region. Wellness champions from each school or camp will discuss the best ideas they want to take home for action and policy.

“We need to provide and encourage as many opportunities as we can for a coordinated team to focus on a healthy environment for kids,” Ms. Bassett said. “This should be a top priority in schools and wherever young people are being educated and served.”

Cooking Up New Farm-to-School Tools
Even the conference lunch will be educational. Chef Ted Cizma of the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa will prepare a model local foods lunch that will be school-menu friendly. Area food service directors and other interested “foodies,” meanwhile, will bring simple, easy to prepare, local food recipes that they find works well with their kids.

Keynote speaker Tony Geraci, the dynamic and nationally known food service director of Baltimore Public Schools, has students designing their own school’s menu—while learning about nutrition and their community.

Other new tools and resources featured at the conference include:

  • Model wellness policies from around the country.

  • A new K-12 garden curriculum tied to Michigan teaching standards.

  • A new Michigan manual for farms that want to sell to schools.

  • Ideas for early childhood education, such as Head Start.

  • New state and federal policies that help schools purchase or serve local foods.

  • A new, national, on-line toolbox for food service directors.

  • An updated regional farm-to-school Web directory of farms with products for cafeterias, fundraisers, and educational opportunities.

  • Updates on local farm-to-school successes and strategies.

  • Exhibits by farmers and other food producers seeking school connections.

A Growing Trend
Setting the Table for Wellness reflects a national trend—more than 2,000 farm-to-school programs now exist across the country, up from 400 just a few years ago and just two known programs 10 years ago. Last year, Michigan passed new farm-to-school legislation to assist schools and farms statewide.

The conference reflects widespread local interest: It has the support of 18 planning partners, including the Traverse City, Suttons Bay, Glen Lake, Northport, Elk Rapids, Benzie County Central, Frankfort-Elberta, and Grand Traverse Catholic school systems; Head Start of Northern Michigan; Munson Healthcare; the Northern Michigan Diabetes Initiative; the Benzie-Leelanau and Grand Traverse health departments; Michigan State University and Extension; the Northwest Michigan Food and Farming Network; and Grand Vision. Financial supporters so far include the Oleson Foundation, Priority Health Care, Rotary Club of Traverse City, Northern Michigan Diabetes Initiative, Munson Healthcare Regional Foundation, C.S. Mott Chair of Sustainable Agriculture at MSU, the Benzie-Leelanau Health Department, Public Sector Consultants, and Families First Monthly.

Registration information will be available starting Jan. 11 at the Michigan Land Use Institute Web site, www.localdifference.org/farmtoschool. Early registration deadline is Feb. 15. For sponsor and exhibit information (Feb. 1 deadline), or to share a farm-to-school recipe or success story, please contact Diane Conners, MLUI farm-to-school coordinator, at diane@mlui.org or 231-941-6584.

Diane Conners is a Michigan Land Use Institute senior policy specialist for food and farming and manages MLUI’s farm-to-school program. Reach her at diane@mlui.org.

Michigan Land Use Institute

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