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N.W. Michigan Growers, Educators Pack Farm-to-School Conference

Hundreds share tips, make plans to put local food on students’ plates

March 19, 2008 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  The conference’s first panel surveyed the success several area schools are enjoying with their farm-to-school programs.

TRAVERSE CITY—More than 300 people attended a historic conference here last week aimed at helping school administrators, food service workers, teachers, and students prepare and serve fresher, healthier food at schools and camps.

The daylong "farm to school" event, hosted by the Michigan Land Use Institute and the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District, was held last Wednesday, March 12, at Northwestern Michigan College’s Hagerty Center.

The conference—sponsored by a number of local businesses and organizations, with lead financial support from the Fifth Third Foundation and the Porter Family Foundation— provided a crucial opportunity for school administrators and growers to collaborate on solutions to the challenge of serving locally grown food in school and camp cafeterias around northwest Lower Michigan.

Renee DeWindt, who as food service director at Frankfort-Elberta and Benzie County Central Schools introduced local food to their cafeteria menus, said the size of the turnout impressed and encouraged her.

"We’re so fortunate in this area that so many school superintendents were here today because they’re interested in this and realize its potential," said Ms. DeWindt, who was one of 12 speakers at the conference.

Farm to School: Healthy Kids, Thriving Farms was the first conference of its kind in Michigan and drew participants from around the state as well as from Chicago. Representatives from nearly 60 northwest Michigan schools, 40 farms, and a few area companies that specialize in local foods came to learn from and connect with each other.

More than 30 schools in the region have in the past few years begun serving local farm foods as part of their work to improve children's learning by serving them tasty, healthy meals. They report great results, such as dramatic increases in the number of students eating breakfast and hot lunch.

But the area’s budding farm-to-school movement is also opening up new markets for local growers, boosting their profits, and helping to keep farmland in production—a key to curbing sprawling development, which could harm the region’s quality of life and its crucial tourist industry.

Richard Friske, owner of Friske Orchards in Ellsworth, left the conference in an upbeat mood.

"When I see the passion and commitment of all these people working toward farm-to-school," Mr Friske said, "I see great potential. I’ve made a number of contacts today, too, that may lead to new sales."

‘A Legacy for Youth’
The effects of the Institute’s farm-to-school program on schools that have adopted it are often dramatic. At Glen Lake Schools, for example, a new scratch-cooking effort using many local farm products has increased lunch participation 50 percent in one year. At Frankfort-Elberta Schools, breakfast participation has nearly doubled, and the school has found students will eat five times as many apples when the cafeteria offers locally grown varieties instead of the typical kind, which are stored for months and shipped from afar.

"We must teach our children the importance of healthy living and eating fresh, locally grown products," said Mike Hill, superintendent of the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District, which provides services to schools in the five-county Grand Traverse region. "The farm-to-school program is an opportunity for the regional community to leave a legacy for youth. The emphasis on fresh, locally grown products will impact their health—and the regional economy."

Diane Conners, the Institute’s Farm to School coordinator and the organizer of the event, said the range of people who attended the conference bodes well for the region, which already leads the state in farm-to-school activity.

"I think the reason people are so interested in farm-to-school programs is that they bring healthy food to our kids, invest in the local economy, and connect us in our community," Ms. Conners said.

Next Steps
The Michigan Land Use Institute and TBA-ISD are planning next steps for supporting farm-to-school programs. They include resources for professional development of teachers and food service staff, email and Web updates on farm-to-school tools and news, and assistance to farms in making business connections with school food service and groups that want to replace typical fundraisers, such as candy sales, with fundraisers featuring local farm products.

The Institute’s Farm to School Web site, www.LocalDifference.org/FarmtoSchool, provides an opportunity for farms to list products and educational opportunities they offer. The site also contains curriculum ideas, resources for food service departments, and school garden opportunities.

Lead sponsors of the conference were Cherry Capital Foods and Cherry Republic. Other sponsors were Munson Healthcare Regional Foundation, Oryana Natural Foods Market, Traverse City Rotary Club, Benzie-Leelanau Health Department, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Families First Monthly, Select Michigan, The Children’s House, the C.S. Mott Chair of Sustainable Agriculture at MSU, Food for Thought, Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, and Tamarack Gallery.

The event was co-organized by the Michigan Land Use Institute and the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District.

Patty Cantrell founded the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Entrepreneurial Agriculture program and is the Institute’s program director. Reach her at patty@mlui.org.

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