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State Law Slows Farm-to-School Progress

Sales limit keeps local food off students' plates

March 16, 2008 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  A standing-room-only crowd of educators, cooks, parents, students, and farmers showed up for the state’s first-ever Farm to School conference in Traverse City.

TRAVERSE CITY—Earlier this week, the Michigan Land Use Institute hosted a sold-out conference called Farm to School: Healthy Kids, Thriving Farms in our community.

More than 300 school administrators, cooks, teachers, parents, and farmers from Northwest Michigan attended. The fact that the Institute had to turn away still more folks who wanted to be there is a testament to intense community interest in bringing our local farmers’ products into our schools’ dining rooms. We discussed many strategies for change at the conference, from hands-on gardening education to teaching kids about the glorious flavors of products grown nearby, and about how investing in our own backyard enriches our minds and bodies, as well as our local and state economies.

Here we were, 330 of the region’s professionals in school education, nutrition, and health, working to nudge fresh, wholesome local food into the center of the plate in our schools’ dining rooms. But what did we find, in the course of our conversations, is perhaps the greatest obstacle to that important goal?

Our own state government.

It proved to be a hot topic in our conference workshops: The Michigan Board of Education effectively caps at just under $20,000 the amount of money that schools can spend on local farm foods. Any more than that, and schools must put themselves and local food suppliers through the bureaucratic nightmare of federal competitive bidding procedures. That is, only by keeping their total local food purchases under $20,000 per year can schools and small farms avoid getting tangled in the kind of paperwork that only huge companies can handle.

Most disheartening about Michigan’s cap is that most other states set their "small purchases threshold" five times as high. These states follow the federal government’s recommended threshold of $100,000 and, therefore, provide more room for schools to purchase directly from local farms. In fact, federal regulators suggest schools start their farm-to-school efforts within this $100,000 small purchases threshold. But they remind advocates to check their own state’s regulations first. So we checked. And in Michigan, it’s set at the incredibly low limiting level of just under $20,000.

What does this mean for our school children, local growers, and the broader health and economic opportunities that Michigan could generate with farm-to-school programs? Let’s use Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) as an example.

TCAPS started gradually buying food from local farms in 2004 and has already run up against the state’s small purchases threshold of nearly $20,000. Because of the state’s spending limit, TCAPS has essentially maxed out its local food purchasing, even though the momentum for more is strong. If allowed more spending room to work with our region’s small farm businesses, TCAPS could easily put more of its nearly $1.8 million food into the local economy.

Other States Tap Enormous Potential
Viewed from a statewide perspective, the potential for schools to support the local farm economy while serving children healthier food is enormous. Traverse City is a relatively small school district. Think of what this might look like for a Grand Rapids school food budget! Preventing schools from spending more with local farms is the purest form of missing a valuable investment opportunity.

Several states have stepped well ahead of Michigan in using farm-to-school as a way to boost their own agricultural markets. In 2002, for example, New York passed its Farm to School Initiative as a means for the state’s agriculture industry to tap into the $16 billion school food market in the state. Another example: California has moved so far as to allow individual school districts to set rules for bidding procedures for perishable foodstuffs and seasonal commodities. This truly allows districts to tailor their priorities around both the quality and source of their ingredients – a true boon to the Farm to School movement.

Other states have been getting on board, too. Most recently, Oregon passed legislation to promote local food purchasing by school districts and established two dedicated Farm to School positions in state government, one in the Department of Agriculture and one in the Department of Education. The idea is for the two departments to cooperate on linking the state’s growers and food processors with its school districts. More help is coming from Congress, where the Senate and House are working on a provision in the 2007 Farm Bill that would allow schools to specify the geographic area from which they prefer to buy food.

In 2006, Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm’s Michigan Food Policy Council released a report that stated, in Recommendation C-2, that the state needs to "increase the purchase of Michigan-produced foods by Michigan schools for service to students."

We need more than a recommendation. Michigan’s departments of education and agriculture, along with the Legislature, must act now to open the school food market to more of the state’s farmers by increasing Michigan’s "small purchases threshold" to the federally recommended level of $100,000. Our farmers and our kids deserve more from their state.

Beth Collins is a chef and a school food service consultant. She owns, operates, and can be reached at Local Plates LLC, a Traverse City firm that helps food services operate more locally and efficiently.

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