Major expansion coming for program that offers schools "10 Cents a Meal" to serve Michigan produce

The budget for the state of Michigan's 10 Cents a Meal has more than doubled each of the past two years, with $9.3 million available in the coming fiscal year to help schools purchase local fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
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.

Michigan schools and early childhood education centers will see a major expansion of state incentives to buy and serve Michigan-grown produce in the coming fiscal year.

In July, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a bipartisan education budget that expanded the successful 10 Cents a Meal for Michigan’s Kids & Farms local food investment program. 10 Cents a Meal offers educational centers funding of up to 10 cents for each meal served that includes Michigan-grown fruits, vegetables, and legumes. 10 Cents a Meal funds are available to schools, early childhood education centers, daycares, and other organizations that participate in USDA Child Nutrition Programs. A $250,000 state pilot kicked off 10 Cents a Meal in 2016. Its budget has more than doubled each of the past two years, from $2 million in 2021 to $4.5 million in 2022, the year the program went statewide. For fiscal year 2023, $9.3 million has been earmarked for the program. 
A student at Grass Lake's George Long Elementary School gets a Michigan pear for lunch.
"The funding of 10 Cents a Meal at $9.3 million is one of the biggest local food/farm to school stories in Michigan's history," says Jeff Smith, communication director for Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, which assists the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) in implementing the program. "This is a very important milestone in the mission to get healthier food to kids in school to help them grow and learn at their best, and to put many millions of dollars into the pockets of Michigan farm families — and expand the local food movement along the way."

10 Cents a Meal is improving Michigan children’s daily nutrition and eating habits and boosting Michigan's agricultural sector and local food business economy. During the 2021-2022 school year, more than 585,000 children benefited from the program.

"10 Cents a Meal is a tool for food program managers to offer children healthy, minimally processed produce that has been grown in Michigan," says Melanie Wong, Groundworks Center farm to early childhood education specialist. "We know that healthy eating habits are built over time and that multiple exposures to foods are needed for children to begin to accept them. So, a program like 10 Cents a Meal … can help food program managers continue to offer healthy Michigan-grown produce so children can be exposed to it and form those healthy eating habits."

Changes to the 2023 program also streamline reporting requirements and make food purchased for farm-to-school activities eligible for grant funds.

"Healthy breakfasts and lunches help set up children so they are ready to learn and engage in their academics," Wong says. "It’s also directing more funds to Michigan’s local food economy, including direct sales with farms [and] other related businesses, … distributors who distribute Michigan-grown food, processors, food aggregators, and food hubs." 

According to the 10 Cents a Meal 2020-2021 Legislative Report, 10 Cents a Meal grantees purchased 63 different types of fruits, vegetables, and legumes grown by 109 farms in 40 Michigan counties. Grantees also impacted an additional 39 food businesses. Preliminary results of evaluation surveys showed that nearly 64% of grantees reported that 10 Cents a Meal grants allowed them to try new products in their food service program that they would not have tried otherwise.
Michigan produce (with the exception of bananas) at the lunch counter at George Long Elementary School in Grass Lake.
"The expansion of 10 Cents a Meal is a huge win for Michigan’s families, children, agriculture business, and communities," Wong says. "[10 Cents a Meal] works to encourage them to explore new product offerings and engage more in farm-to-school, farm-to-early care, and education strategies like taste tests or food and nutrition education activities." 

Meals are greener at Grass Lake Community Schools

In Jackson County, Grass Lake Community Schools have been involved in 10 Cents a Meal for five years. Kelly Bolton, the district's food services director, is excited to see the program expand its reach to more Michigan schools, early childhood programs, and daycare centers.
Kelly Bolton.
"10 Cents a Meal has helped us a great deal," Bolton says. "It allows us to serve healthier meals and also gives students that opportunity to try new fruits and new vegetables as we add them into new and different recipes. We are allowed to be more inventive and more imaginative. And it's really sparked the interest of all the students."

According to Bolton, serving new foods and recipes in the lunchroom has translated to more students eating school lunches. It's also sparked interest in cooking classes and other educational activities that instill lifelong healthy eating habits in the district’s children. For example, Bolton says, Grass Lake Community Schools have conducted fun activities like a competition for students to determine which Michigan apple should be served at lunch.
Students at Grass Lake's George Long Elementary with their lunches.
"10 Cents a Meal allowed us to expand our opportunities beyond just serving school lunch," Bolton says.

Bolton believes that Grass Lake students are doing better academically and behaving better because they're eating healthier foods.

"It’s the fuel for their day. I can honestly see the difference after the lunchtime period compared to the rest of the day, just by them eating a little extra fruit and a little extra vegetable," she says. "We pay close attention. If we see a student that may not have a lunch, we will approach these students and, surprisingly, you should see how happy these students are that we would offer them these fruits and vegetables to get them through the day."

Thanks to 10 Cents a Meal, Bolton and her staff can purchase fresh Michigan produce for student meals at their local farmers market. They also make routine purchases from Birch Road Farm, a local farm that has served the county for generations.
Students at Grass Lake's George Long Elementary wait for lunch.
"We like to let the kids know that they are actually eating local produce from their own town, supporting their own local businesses, and their own farmers," Bolton says. "These farmers could be their, or their friends’, grandmas and grandpas or parents. So it's very exciting that we get to try these farmers’ food and incorporate it into our lunches."

Bolton’s enthusiasm for the program has not gone unnoticed. The MDE has enlisted her to provide administrative support to other schools who are navigating the grant process or need assistance in tracking purchasing and submitting invoices required to receive grant funds.

"I had so many schools that said, ‘Well, I actually didn't even realize what this was all about,’ or they did not realize how easy it was to apply and to get your grants funded," Bolton says. "There is a lot of misconception of how much work it would take to get this extra money. The MDE has made it wonderfully easy for them. So, why not support the local businesses, serve fresher fruits and vegetables, and get free money all at the same time? It's just a positive experience."

The proof is in the produce

Since 10 Cents a Meal's inception, the Michigan State University (MSU) Center for Regional Food Systems has evaluated its impacts. In 2020-2021, food program managers reported a wide variety of new foods being served for the first time as a result of 10 Cents a Meal. These food programs purchased more than 30 types of Michigan-grown vegetables and 16 types of Michigan-grown fruits for the first time. On average, 10 Cents a Meal grantees tried at least five new Michigan-grown foods throughout that year.

"We can see that children are being served a variety of these healthier foods and they're eating all kinds of fruits, vegetables, and legumes that they may not have had the opportunity to," says Megan McManus, MSU Center for Regional Food Systems farm to institution fellow. "This is a long-term goal for the 10 Cents a Meal program. We hope that as children are exposed to more Michigan-grown fruits, vegetables, and legumes in their meals, they'll become more accustomed to these foods and choose to eat them because they like the taste. And over time, it's these healthier meals that are being served that will establish better lifelong eating habits."

In another major long-term goal, organizers and advocates are hoping that 10 Cents a Meal will inspire similar efforts beyond Michigan.

"We're really excited about the expansion of 10 Cents a Meal for a lot of reasons. The statewide, expanded eligibility to include grantees like early care and education sites has opened the doors for so many grantees to participate," McManus says. "Also, this program is now getting attention from people across the country who are watching its progress and expansion. 10 Cents a Meal is being seen as a model for other states to adopt their own local food programs."

Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer focusing on journalism, book editing, communications, poetry, and children's books. You can contact her at Estelle.Slootmaker@gmail.com or www.constellations.biz.

Photos by Doug Coombe.