Farming top-notch school nutrition

There are approximately 40 schools in the Grand Traverse regions that are targeting the reduction of students’ waistlines, while at the same time aiming to bolster the bottom lines of local farmers.
 
These schools are participating in the Farm to School program, coordinated by the Michigan Land Use Institute, and they serve a variety of locally grown fruits and vegetables and, in some cases, even milk, meat, and eggs. Not only does this result in a productive attack on childhood obesity; it also results in farmers in the area drawing from a revenue stream untapped before the program began with one pilot elementary school back in 2004.
 
“It truly is a win/win for both the students and the farmers,” says Diane Conners,” Senior Policy Specialist for Michigan Land Use Institute. “The program is an investment in the children’s health and in the local food economy.
 
“There is all this wonderful, fresh food in the area. It’s just a matter of having a program that can get the food from the farm to the school. Now, with Farm to School, such a means exists. The kids love it, and they’re eating healthy.”
 
Today nearly 10,000 schools nationwide have Farm to School programs, compared to only two known programs in the country 13 years ago. The reason for the vast increase in participation, according to Conners, is the increased awareness of childhood obesity, which has tripled for some age groups over the last 35 years.
 
The program has become an exciting and recognized method to provide good food to kids and to engage them in healthy eating. Two-thirds of daily nutrition for many kids is in schools, including 46 percent of children in Michigan, who qualify for free and reduced lunches – so nearly half of the children attending schools in Michigan have families who financially rely schools, and can't send sack lunches.
 
So, Farm to School makes good use of public dollars by leveraging them toward more than one goal at the same time: getting healthy fruits and vegetables to Michigan’s children, and investing in the local economy and jobs.
 
“We love participating in the program; it’s great for the kids,” says Gary Derrigan, Food Service Director for Traverse City Area Public Schools. “We are very selective, and in the long run, you’re getting good, fresh food to kids, and you’re also teaching them at the same time.”
 
The “teaching,” of which Derrigan speaks comes in farmers making visits to schools to teach students about farming techniques. This includes potato farmers bringing in bags of their crop for kids to munch on, talks on hydroponics, or various other education opportunities that give students a chance to learn about healthy eating.
 
After one farmer brought in asparagus in different forms, roasting it for the kids to try, some of the students were asking their parents to buy it and prepare it at home. This brought some interesting comments from the parents, according to Conners.
 
“Parents all the time are asking us, ‘How do you do it,’” she says. “They want to know how we get the students interested in healthy eating. We are being really creative with the way we present to the kids. When they can meet the farmer, see the product, ask how it is farmed, they become interested and naturally are more interested in eating it. It really works.”
 
In October, one farmer per week visits the schools to give educational talks to the students, and, of course turnabout is fair play. There are also field trips students make to the farms. This also goes a long way in getting them interested in healthy eating.
 
Grand Traverse area farmers, such as Nic Welty of 9 Bean Rows Farm, and grower Jim Bardenhagen, also benefit from the program. These are just two farmers who have sold product to area schools through Farm to School. K-12 schools in Michigan spend roughly $200 million a year on food. If even a small portion of that were spent with local farmers or food distributors, that source locally grown food it would make a big difference in the economy.
 
“Why send that money to asparagus farmers in Peru, apple farmers in Washington, potato growers in California?” Conners says. “There is fresher food right here in our neighborhoods. It’s just a matter of getting into the schools. Now we have a way of doing it.
 
“Connecting local farms to schools is part of a bigger celebration of local farming, a visibility of local food,” she says. “School Food Service Directors are now looking local where they didn’t have that opportunity before 2004. They see it not only as viable, but as something that is a great benefit to the kids.”
 
This year, Conners has taken the program a step further and created the Leelanau Learning Circle, a group of Food Service Directors who get together to brainstorm about ways to get local food into kids’ hands. Now, the Farm to School program organizers have a forum to speak to several school staffers at one sitting, and get ideas on how to facilitate a program that is even more beneficial.
 
“It’s all about getting better, making things even more streamlined,” Conners says. “There’s no telling where we can go from here.”
 
Jeff Barr is a freelance writer who has lived in Michigan for 45 years. He has covered every part of the state, including the Northwest Lower Peninsula. You can reach Jeff via email.
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