Beyond farm-to-table meals: Bringing fresh food to Michigan's schools

Last year, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation study found that 86 percent of Americans support national school nutrition standards, which help more than 30 million children eat healthy at school. 88 percent support publicly funded farm to school programs, which ensure that much of the produce children consume at school is locally grown.

In an era of deepening political polarization, such an overwhelming level of support for government-funded programming of any sort is virtually unheard of. Some support is likely due to the fact that parents intuitively understand the importance of good nutrition.

It’s also probably due, in part, to school nutrition programs’ early successes. Since 2010, just prior to the adoption of federal school nutrition standards, the proportion of WKKF survey respondents who agreed that school cafeteria nutrition is “excellent or good” rose a staggering 41 percent, to 67 percent overall. That’s a powerful argument that nutrition advocates -- and the school nutrition programming they support -- are on the right track.

Since the beginning of the decade, a diverse collection of stakeholders have tackled the school nutrition challenge with ardor: nonprofit funders like WKKF, whose massive grant earlier this decade spurred farm to school efforts into overdrive; advocacy groups like the National Farm to School network and Michigan’s own Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities; local school districts like Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District (TBAISD); teaching and food service staff; and, of course, kids themselves. Though their work is (often literally) bearing fruit from coast to coast, some of the most exciting initiatives are happening right here in our own backyard.

Farm to School Efforts Pull “Triple Duty”

For more than a decade, the Groundwork Center -- formerly Michigan Land Use Institute -- has supported farm to school programming. The organization’s efforts now touch more than a dozen schools, 70 individual classrooms and some 2,000 students.

The Groundwork Center works closely on farm to school initiatives with FoodCorps, a national organization dedicated to “building a more sustainable, equitable food system,” and Michigan State University Extension’s Grand Traverse County office, FoodCorps’ Michigan host organization. MSU Extension, based in the Lansing area, is also the primary sponsor for Michigan Farm to School, the local branch of the National Farm to School network. In northwest Michigan, two FoodCorps members spearhead efforts to source fresh, local produce, drawing on a growing directory of northern Michigan farms that sell to school food service directors.

“FoodCorps programming serves triple duty: It markets local agriculture, gives kids healthy eating habits, and supports food service efforts,” says Diane Conners, senior policy specialist at the Groundwork Center.

Groundwork and Food Corps promote access to locally grown “good food,” as defined by the Michigan Good Food Charter: healthful, sustainably produced, exploitation-free (adherent to fair labor practices), and affordable for all.

In the 2013-14 school year, the local FoodCorps members brought more than 1,500 pounds of locally grown produce into schools across four northwest Michigan counties. That’s not a bad haul. But Conners and her team believe that the program has just scratched the surface. Brokering business relationships between school food service directors and local growers is painstaking work that’s difficult for small nonprofits like the Groundwork Center to scale quickly.

To keep the momentum going and make it all but impossible to ignore the farm to school program’s success, the Groundwork Center is in the process of handing off day-to-day program management and outreach to TBAISD -- eventually “putting ourselves out of a job,” says Conners.

Meanwhile, MSU Extension is teaming up with the Michigan Farmers Market Association on Hoophouses for Health, a season extension initiative. Michigan farmers can apply for hoophouse-building grants issued by the Michigan Farmers Market Association, which then works with on-the-ground social support nonprofits (such as Head Start) to distribute food vouchers to low-income families. Families exchange vouchers for hoophouse-grown produce at farmers markets around the state.

Separately, Hoophouses for Health participants sell hoophouse-grown produce directly to schools and other institutions, dramatically increasing the local produce supply at Michigan schools -- and adding months to Michigan’s famously erratic growing season.

10 Cents a Meal for Healthier Kids

Hoophouses for Health underscores the financial challenges facing farm to school advocates.

Like any grant-driven initiative, funding for farm to school programs is inherently unstable and rarely adequate to stave off difficult compromises.

The other side of the equation is even more troubling. As many as 80 percent of kids at some Traverse Bay area schools qualify for free or reduced lunches, and 50 percent overall receive the bulk of their nutrition at school. Without financial support, low-income families simply can’t afford to buy fresh, local produce on a consistent basis.

The Groundwork Center’s 10 Cents a Meal pilot project could change that. 10 Cents a Meal reimburses schools for 50 percent of per-meal costs, up to a 10-cent-per-meal maximum. School districts kick in matching funds, covering most or all of the typical 20- to 30-cent cost of each meal. The result: more breathing room in school budgets, and better access to healthier produce for low-income kids who’d otherwise go without.

10 Cents a Meal is also great for local farmers. In the year prior to its launch, participating school districts spent just over $30,000 on local produce. Two years in, participating districts spent a cumulative $150,000 with local farmers -- a huge boost with tremendous implications for the local farm economy.

“With a stable source of funding, local farmers are better able to plan around bad years and temporary disruptions,” says Conners. “Stable funding also demonstrates to farmers that school food service directors and administrators are serious about trying to grow farm to school programming.”

If everything goes according to plan, farm to school funding could soon get a big boost -- both quantitatively and geographically. State Senator Darwin Booher, who represents parts of northwest Lower Michigan, is a big proponent of school nutrition. Along with Groundwork Center staff, he’s leading the charge to expand 10 Cents a Meal to other parts of Michigan. That could be a huge deal for farmers in the Upper Peninsula and further downstate, Michigan school districts currently struggling to source cost-competitive local produce, and the kids who stand to benefit from healthier, fresher food choices.

“Teaching to the Test” with Local Food Curriculum

Michigan Farm to School isn’t all about better childhood nutrition and stronger local agriculture networks. It’s also an incredible educational asset -- as long as advocates can convince teachers that farm to school concepts are relevant to existing curricula and bureaucratic requirements.

That’s why the Groundwork Center is working closely with TBAISD to align teachers’ lesson plans with Common Core and the Marzano Teacher Evaluation Framework, a comprehensive pedagogical approach utilized by school districts throughout northern Lower Michigan.

“Teachers are increasingly overworked and under the gun today,” says Conners, citing persistent pressure to “teach to the test.”

“[The emerging farm to school curriculum] doesn’t interfere with teachers who need to meet Common Core and Marzano requirements,” she adds. “It actually supports those goals, while teaching practical concepts in an exciting, engaging way.” A teacher-oriented web portal offers farm to school lesson plans and other materials for educators.

Farm to school curriculum is surprisingly versatile. Math lessons incorporate recipes and cooking formulas. Physics lessons explore changes in states of matter during plant lifecycles and the cooking process itself. Botany lessons highlight the differences between plants kids eat at lunchtime. Human health lessons underscore the healthful benefits of good nutrition. Even non-quantitative disciplines can explore topics related to Michigan’s farm economy: local farm-to-table networks and agricultural history, for instance.

And, of course, there’s an invaluable sensory component to most food-related lesson plans, particularly those that actually involve handling produce.

“Kids can say, ‘Oh, my neighbor grew this squash, and it’s delicious,’” says Conners. “That’s an incredibly powerful connection to be able to make.”

Brian Martucci is a freelance writer. 
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