The Potato Project: Building a stronger, more sustainable food-to-school system

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

KALAMAZOO, MI — Who doesn’t love potatoes? Watch the kids in the school cafeteria, and they often reach for the fries and tater tots first. Those are not the healthiest ways to eat potatoes, however, due to high-fat content from frying and added preservatives — and for reasons of labor, profit, and sustainability, not the best way to serve them for Michigan farmers.

That is where a partnership comes in to change the way and what we eat. The Michigan Farm to School Potato Processing Partnership — or what the partners more fondly refer to as the ‘Potato Project’ — brings together the ValleyHUB at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, the Michigan State University (MSU) Extension, and Muskegon, Battle Creek, and Kalamazoo Public Schools, along with local Michigan farmers.

“Because of budgets and staffing shortages, many schools are not set up for raw produce coming into their kitchens,” says Dan Gorman, food service director for Montague area schools and Northern Muskegon public schools. Produce needs to be easily delivered, frozen, and prepared. 

Passionate about providing healthy food for school children and keeping produce local and sustainable, Gorman connected with the MSU Extension for help. 

“While our schools already had a 10-cent discount per meal that comes to us through the State, and I have been able to buy Michigan apples with the discount, I wanted to expand on that,” Gorman says. “It took a grant and two years of conversations and first efforts that didn’t work well, but then — with everyone’s help — we made it work.”

Mariel Borgman, a community food systems educator at the MSU Extension, had a goal of bringing more Michigan produce to tables throughout the State, especially to schools. The MSU Extension would provide whatever technical assistance would be needed.

“There’s been a recent influx of interest and funding for farm to school,” Borgman says. “We won a grant in 2021 and heard about Dan Gorman and his interest in getting Michigan produce into schools, so we reached out to him. He had some equipment already for processing, but we needed more.”

Another connection, another partner came into play. ValleyHUB, a social enterprise food hub and part of Kalamazoo Valley Community College with a mission to train future food systems professionals, had the necessary equipment along with the culinary students who could lend their hands in processing. 

The next challenge was to find the right product. 

“Potatoes are so basic, familiar, and popular with kids, and Michigan farms grow hundreds of thousands of potatoes,” says Rachel Bair, director for sustainable food systems at ValleyHUB. “We all wanted to find a potato that could be a healthier option than fries, that could be frozen and then roasted later without oil. We figured it would be an easy swap and kids would be more likely to try a yummy, crispy potato.”

It was a good idea, but challenges awaited. What kind of potato would work best? The partners soon found that most farms ship “dirty” potatoes, straight from the ground, and rarely did they ship directly to kitchens. Potato varieties seemed almost infinite, but not all survived processing well for the kind of use the Potato Project partners required. 

“We went through a lot of recipe development to get it right,” Bair says. “It can be surprisingly easy to freeze potatoes wrong. It took a long time to get that right so that the potatoes wouldn’t end up soggy or tasteless.”

With a department of culinary students from an Agra Foods and Processing class at KVCC eager to learn and experiment, product development was mostly done at the ValleyHUB. As they worked through countless varieties of Michigan potatoes, seeking a higher starch content relative to moisture, the partners finally decided on the Lamoka potato variety. 

“The Lamoka is what is called a chipping potato,” Bair says. “Michigan potato farmers grow a lot of chipping potatoes. It’s popular for chips because it fries to a light color and maintains well in storage.”

“Browning of the potatoes was initially one of our problems,” Borgman agrees. “There’s an enzyme in potatoes that oxidizes and causes them to brown when cut. We then used a product called NatureSeal that eliminates browning for up to 14 days.”

As Crisp Country Acres in Holland, Michigan, was already working with ValleyHUB — and they grow potatoes — they became the first supplier of the chipping potatoes for the project. The partners gathered for taste-testing bowls of potatoes and finally realized they had found the perfect potato. 

“Oh, I’m passionate about farm-to-school, and it is so fun to learn about the science of potatoes,” Kirsten Strong says. She is the resident dietitian nutritionist for Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) and was eager to get the diced and frozen potatoes prepared by ValleyHUB into the kitchens of the schools. 

In December 2023, 1,000 pounds of ready-to-cook potatoes were delivered to area schools from ValleyHUB. It was a tasty milestone. 

“They come to us diced and blanched in five-pound bags, perfect size to fit our cooking sheets,” Strong says. “We toss them in seasoning or a spice blend and shake that around, then cook them in the oven. That takes about 24 minutes. And when we tasted them, they were restaurant quality.”

Every meal served in the school cafeterias, Strong says, must be of top nutritional value but also serve the needs of local farmers. Each meal must include a choice of fruit or vegetable, a protein, and milk to qualify for federal and state funding. 

“Research shows that something new must be introduced 10 times to become familiar,” Strong says. “Once something becomes familiar, kids are more likely to self-select these potatoes, so schools are perfect for this.”

“It was during the Covid pandemic, when food supplies sometimes shut down, that we realized we need to develop a local food system,” Gorman says. “The big system isn’t working. We subsidize big farms, but we need to invest permanently in more sustainable and local food systems. The Potato Project isn’t a one-off. We are making efforts to get local, healthier, more sustainable foods to our students. We want to change the eating habits of our kids.”

And why stop there? With the Potato Project successfully established, the partners plan to introduce other Michigan fruits and vegetables. 

“Small to mid-scale food processing is currently a gap in Michigan, so this project helps to fill that gap,” Borgman says. “This could be a game changer.”

“What’s so exciting about this project is that we have developed partnerships to solve multiple needs while feeding kids something that is high quality and nourishing,” Bair says. “And we are supporting Michigan agriculture, building a stronger food system. This has been a beautiful example of aligning funding and expertise for multiple purposes.”

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Zinta Aistars is the creative director of Z Word, LLC. She is the producer and host of the weekly radio show, Art Beat, on WMUK.