Editor's note: This story originally ran in our sister publication, Second Wave Media.
This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.
As of Sept. 22, Michigan's School Aid Budget has reinstated its nationally acclaimed 10 Cents a Meal program — and, for the first time, schools in every Michigan county can apply to participate. The program provides schools with match incentive funding up to 10 cents per meal to purchase and serve Michigan-grown fruits, vegetables, and legumes. The goal is to improve children's daily nutrition, build their healthy eating habits, and invest in Michigan's local food economy.
Based on Michigan Good Food Charter recommendations, Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities introduced 10 Cents a Meal as a pilot program in the Traverse City region in 2016.
"We saw that we had a lot of support for farm-to-school programs," says Diane Conners, senior policy specialist with Groundwork Center. "We had [school] food service directors who were interested in buying from local farmers and a lot of farmers who saw the value of school markets."
By 2018, 10 Cents a Meal had expanded into 43 Michigan counties. But in 2019, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed the line-item budget for the program. However, with her renewed support, the legislature not only restored the funds for 2021 but increased them so that school districts in every county can apply. Participating districts' early childhood centers can now take part as well. On Sept. 30, Whitmer signed the state's budget for next fiscal year, providing $2 million in funding for 10 Cents a Meal.
According to the Michigan League for Public Policy, the 10 Cents a Meal Program is one way the state can address COVID-19's unprecedented health, educational, and economic impacts. For one, it will help children eat healthier. The increased nutrients found in fresh, local produce support kids' growth, development, and focus and help boost their immune systems. As COVID-19 continues to put more families at risk for poverty and food insecurity, having healthy meals at school becomes even more imperative.
"COVID-19 did have a dire effect on our economy, so we honestly didn't know what kind of funding would be available for 10 Cents a Meal in 2021," Conners says. "Economically, it makes sense. Kids need to eat great, healthy food and Michigan growers grow it."A school farmers market at 10 Cents a Meal grantee Battle Creek Public Schools.
To accommodate COVID-19's impact on market sectors and supply chains, Michigan's farmers have shifted their business models. Those supplying restaurants lost customers overnight. Meanwhile, interruptions in national and global supply chains resulted in increased demand for local foods. The 10 Cents a Meal program strengthens those local markets even more, and on a more permanent basis. While many local farms have built direct relationships with schools, larger firms like Gordon Food Service, Cherry Capital Foods, and Michigan Farm to Freezer are also delivering local Michigan produce to schools involved in the program.
"In any community, a school is the largest restaurant in town," Conners says. "Building these relationships and building these supply chains is very important. 10 Cents a Meal is helping to spur business for distributors, processors, and others. It has this ripple effect on the economy. It has a lot of promise for food hubs and promise for farms of all kinds and sizes."
Small district, big results
Numerous Michigan school districts have already experienced impressive results from the program – including one of the state's smallest districts. Beaver Island Community School (BICS) has 54 students enrolled from kindergarten through 12th grade. Since getting involved in 10 Cents a Meal, the number of students participating in the school's hot lunch program has increased from seven or eight to 35 or 40.
Before getting involved in the program, the school had vendor-delivered lunches that were no longer hot by the time children ate them. For the most part, the only kids who ate them were those qualifying for free and reduced lunch. Now that the school's own staff prepares lunches on-site, teachers, parents, and even elders from the community are joining the kids for lunch.
Wil Cwikiel, BICS superintendent and principal, notes that while federal and state nutrition standards mandate fruits and vegetables in school lunches, the additional funds from 10 Cents a Meal gave his district the means to take other factors into account. Those include supporting local economies; serving fresh, local fruits and vegetables with more nutrients and better flavor; introducing produce that kids had never tried before; and considering the carbon footprint of food transport.
"What it did was create an incentive to think more carefully about how we source and serve those fruits and vegetables, about having fresh greens grown at a farm in Charlevoix County instead of those sourced from California," Cwikiel says. "That's an important thing for a lot of different reasons."
As the largest island in Lake Michigan, 32 miles across the water from the city of Charlevoix, Beaver Island presents unique challenges to food access. While the school district is able to purchase corn, tomatoes, and a few other vegetables from a farmer on the island, most food is flown in. Sysco provides the school with most of its staple items. To purchase local fruits and vegetables, the school depends on a Charlevoix County CSA that delivers seasonal produce to the airport once a week. Cwikiel says the system can present menu-planning challenges, but the overall outcome is "fantastic."
"We're not only helping meet the nutritional needs of kids," he says. "We are helping the local economy and addressing global climate change by reducing the energy used to ship and produce food. We are small potatoes, micro potatoes, but for the state of Michigan, this program is a big win-win-win."
Grass Lake students eating greener
Located between Jackson and Ann Arbor, Grass Lake Community Schools has also had three years of success serving fresh local fruits and vegetables with help from 10 Cents a Meal. Kelly Bolton, food services director for the district, also uses other grant funding to promote healthier eating with taste-testings and cooking classes. Before serving "farmer's choice" fruits and vegetables during lunch at the elementary, middle, and high schools, she emails parents and students information about the local produce coming up on the lunch menu.
Bolton says the district's parents have been "so involved and excited" about the changes, and even the students have enjoyed the cooking classes.Kelly Bolton at Sand Hill Farms.
"The middle school kids just went crazy for it," she says. "They were so excited to try these fresh, healthy options themselves. They could not believe they tasted so good."
In addition to sourcing produce from Sand Hill Farms, Zenz Farms, and the Grass Lake Farmers Market, Bolton orders from Cherry Capital Foods and Gordon Food Service. Both help her track the specific Michigan farms that grow each item delivered. As at BICS, more students are eating school lunches, whether they receive free or reduced lunches or not.
"It's really neat to have them try these different items that they might not have tried before," Bolton says.
Bolton even created a video to document the new process by which the district gets its food.
"It shows the corn on the cob coming in crates, shucking it, cooking it, and the end process — the kids holding their trays," she says. "We played it at a conference to show how one little town was able to change how people feel about fresh fruits and vegetables."
While raising the bar on school lunch quality for all students, the 10 Cents a Meal program is especially important in improving diets for Michigan children without access to healthy food. Cwikiel notes that while people often think of food insecurity as an urban issue, it affects rural Michiganders too.
"The rural poor may have access to growing and wild game but there are still similar nutritional issues with childhood obesity, carbs, and sugar," Cwikiel says. "The 10 Cents a Meal program creates that incentive to think deeper, harder, and more creatively about serving the best meal we can every day. That rising tide floats all boats."
A freelance writer and editor, Estelle Slootmaker is happiest writing about social justice, wellness, and the arts. She is development news editor for Rapid Growth Media, communications manager for Our Kitchen Table, and chairs The Tree Amigos, City of Wyoming Tree Commission. Her finest accomplishment is her five amazing adult children. You can contact Estelle at Estelle.Slootmaker@gmail.com or www.constellations.biz.
Kelly Bolton photos by Doug Coombe. Diane Conners photo courtesy of Diane Conners. Whitehall District Schools photo by Lynn DeVlieg, courtesy Whitehall District Schools. Battle Creek Public Schools photo courtesy of Battle Creek Public Schools. Boyne Falls Public School photo courtesy of Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities.