Students help ensure farm sustainability and bring local food to cafeterias in UP program

The LIFT-UP program gives students a pivotal role in identifying and addressing barriers to expanding local produce in school cafeterias.
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.

Schools in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are engaging students in lifting up the importance of healthy eating. Kids are the focus of the Locally Integrated Food Teams in the Upper Peninsula (LIFT-UP) project, which aims to identify and address barriers to expanding local produce in school cafeterias. Launched in June 2021, the program is a collaboration among Michigan State University’s Department of Community Sustainability and Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center, the UP Food Exchange, and Marquette-Alger Regional Educational Service Agency (Marquette-Alger RESA).
Students participate in the LIFT-UP program.
"As the first step in land-based learning, students identify a local agricultural entity that they want to connect with and work with," says Aaron McKim, project co-director and assistant professor in the MSU Department of Community Sustainability. "Then, they shift into a stage of understanding — going to the local farm to understand what is grown there, what systems operate, and what challenges there are for the producer. Step three is working with a producer to seek and identify an intervention to enhance the sustainability of the farm. The fourth step is to evaluate the impact of the intervention."

Students have planted potatoes and created slug traps and compost pads in some of these interventions.

"The students are hands-on. They're the ones figuring out the problem. They're the ones proposing a solution. They're the ones implementing the solution," McKim says. "The students are driving that process. The adults just step aside and go with it. It is so much fun."

When schools purchase locally produced food, they both support farmers in the school communities and expand the variety of healthy food choices available to students.

"When you look at local food systems, you've got local food producers who are consistently looking for sustainable, reliable markets to sell their products. And you've also got schools that need reliable sources of food," McKim says. "You would think it'd be easy to connect those two things, but it simply isn't."

Barriers to making those connections include schools' lack of capacity to process fresh vegetables and other local foods, as well as growing seasons that do not correspond to the months when schools are in session. Students involved in LIFT-UP help assess their school’s current farm-to-school practices to identify ways to overcome these barriers to purchasing local food.

"If a high school student has food that's sourced the traditional way — some external company comes in and delivers the food — they have no connection. They eat for consumption," McKim says. "If they're aware of who produces their food, they eat with more intentionality. If the students are engaged in producing the food, eating becomes this holistic experience, this culmination of the work that they were involved in."

Hydroponics, hoop houses, and HVAC
Students participate in the LIFT-UP program.
In addition to fostering relationships with local food producers, LIFT-UP students have figured out ways to grow food for themselves. For instance, students at Superior Central School District in Eben Junction addressed the UP’s short growing season by sending heat from the school boiler to an existing hoop house. The kids designed the project, dug the trench, laid the pipe, and made their idea come to literal fruition. They have extended the hoop house growing season and provided more fresh produce for the cafeteria.

At Negaunee High School, the students purchased a self-contained hydroponic growing tower to grow fresh, leafy vegetables. The school’s food service director purchases the greens from the class to supply 75% of their school salad bar.

Haley Brasier, Marquette-Alger RESA health education consultant, says these projects start by posing a simple question to students: "How do we get more local fresh food into our school lunchroom?" Students have access to LIFT-UP partners, as well as funding, to help them realize their vision.

"We set the students up for success. We connect them with the most influential partners in our community. And then it's up to them to create an idea. We don't really give them any suggestions," Brasier says. "We let them brainstorm what's valuable in their own school to them as students."
Students participate in the LIFT-UP program.
Marquette-Alger RESA, the intermediate school district serving the UP’s Marquette and Alger counties, makes working with schools on health and nutrition education a top priority. Brasier provides that education piece to LIFT-UP.

"A lot of our schools in the UP are in rural communities. Most of them are food deserts, where they have to travel 30 to 60 miles to get to the nearest grocery store," Brasier says. "A lot of times, these schools are purchasing from big chain distributors. So a lot of times that is heat-and-serve food that is not fresh."

Brasier and her colleagues introduced the LIFT-UP curriculum to agriculture and environmental science teachers at two schools. The curriculum covers the various components of the local food system. Brasier says students' work through LIFT-UP has real, long-term impact.

"We've been applauding them because they are changemakers in their schools," she says. "They are creating lasting change that's going to stick around for years after them."

UP Food Exchange Platform extends LIFT-Up’s impact

The UP Food Exchange (UPFE) has been particularly helpful in bolstering LIFT-UP's impact. UPFE's web-based Online Marketplace platform acts like a food hub where 12 area farmers currently make local food available to school food service directors looking to serve fresh, local foods to their students. UPFE also supports policy work, community education, food safety, business development, and farm-to-school projects like LIFT-UP. 

"It's important for students to have that firsthand experience on where they're getting their food in their lunchrooms. It's important that they have that connection to their food stories," says Eli Hopp, UPFE Online Marketplace manager. "Being able to source food locally versus getting it from even downstate, there’s a lot less travel time and it's a fresher option."

Hopp has also helped students connect directly with those area farmers.

"The students came up with some really great ideas on how to source local food," he says.

In one case, students helped a farmer plant potatoes, worked with the farmer to grow the potatoes, and then helped the farmer harvest the potatoes. Last but not least, the school purchased the potatoes at a reduced rate from the farmer.

"This gave the farmer a good sales option, and the kids got a great experience on the farm," Hopp says. "I really enjoyed going to the school, meeting the kids, and hearing about all their grand ideas. These kids really are passionate about getting some great food into their school. I hope that more schools can be a part of this up here in the UP."
Students participate in the LIFT-UP program.
"We didn't realize it could be this cool, this fun, this active, this authentic."

McKim believes another important accomplishment of the LIFT-UP project is the way it engages and immerses students within their own communities. The students get to know the people who produce their food. Those people may be their neighbors down the street, the family they go to church with, or the folks they run into at community events. Similarly, the farmers get to know the people who are eating and benefiting from the foods they are producing. They see their work directly helping their own community. McKim hopes to see the model used by more schools across the state.

"In a world where iPads, TikTok, and screens are becoming more and more prevalent, this totally pushes that all aside," he says. "The students are connecting with community members, getting out there to make a difference, make a change, and the students loved it. They're seeking that because they're missing it in their everyday lives. If we in education can consider more authentic, alternative, community-based experiences, students are not going to run away and hide behind their phones."

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

Photos courtesy of Marquette-Alger RESA and UP Food Exchange.
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