Farm to School: Lessons in fresh, local food

The Western Upper Peninsula Planning and Development’s new Farm to School project is working with two intermediate school districts to provide fresh, locally grown food to the region’s children.

What’s happening: Over the next two years, the Western Upper Peninsula Farm to School Project will partner with the Copper Country Intermediate School District and the Gogebic-Ontonagon Intermediate School District to expand understanding of and access to fresh, local food with activities that include:
  • Professional development for teachers
  • School garden mini grants
  • Community art events
  • Planning/funding for sustainable long-term Farm to School tools, supplies and staff
  • Creation of two new staff positions to support farm to school at the local level.

The back story: Over the past 20 years an emphasis on cost-cutting rather than food quality has resulted in many school districts leaning away from home grown, prepared-from-scratch school meals, says Rachel Pressley, regional planner for Western Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Region. There's definitely enough locally produced food to supply the schools, Pressley says, but processed foods may be cheaper and easier to serve, both at home and at school, than fresh, locally produced food. 

The Farm to School program helps reverse that trend. “The Farm to School project helps make the connection,” she says, “remembering that we have local food here and also remembering that children deserve the best food possible.”

The project benefits students and farm producers alike, Pressley says, by serving fresh, quality food to children and helping local farmers by supplying a market for their food that might otherwise be sourced from much farther away.

Hands-on food production and preparation is part of the project as well. Students may learn how to make pizza sauce from fresh tomatoes instead of opening a jar, for instance. Or, in addition to learning more about the local farmers who produce their food, students may learn more about gardening themselves in school garden plots, sometimes planted by students in the spring and harvested by the same students when they return to school in the fall. 

The program will award grants for tools, soil, seeds, plants and cultivation for school gardens, and teach gardening skills to teachers and students alike, Pressley says.

Community members will be allowed to attend workshops, likely to start in August but with no dates set yet.

“Our program gives food service directors and farmers free resources and supports the integration of local food in our schools,” says Madelina DiLisi, Farm to School educational consultant. “It also allows us the opportunity to invest in our values, which keeps money in the local economy. The benefits of Farm to School aren't concentrated in just one area, they are widespread throughout the community.”

Local farmers benefit: Teaching kids and teachers more about where their food comes from and how to grow some of it themselves is just part of the project. Local farms that provide fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and eggs to school meal programs benefit from the Farm to School projects as well, Pressley says.

Ashley and Jake TenHarmsel of North Harvest CSA farm, just one mile from Calumet-Laurium-Keweenaw Schools, have been producing high-quality, fresh foods for the Keweenaw area since 2013.  An earlier phase of the project assisted farms like North Harvest CSA to begin sales to Houghton and Hancock schools through the 10 Cents a Meal program, a state-funded program giving a match incentive for schools to serve Michigan-grown produce to students. 

The TenHarmsels say they are excited to see more children eating fresher foods and becoming engaged in where their foods come from.

 “My favorite part of Farm to School is that kids are able to access and eat fresh, healthy foods from local growers,” Ashley TenHarmsel says. “This program will allow many of the children to try foods they’ve never had before.”

As an example — an activity allowing children to sample peppers of all varieties and tastes, Pressley says.

‘Connecting the kids with this program at a young age will hopefully grow their interest in gardening, healthy eating, and the local food systems community,”  Ashley TenHarmsel says. “I’m also excited to see partnerships between local schools and farms grow. From hosting teaching gardens to bringing classes out to learn on the farm, there are so many ways that this program can grow,” 

Who’s picking up the tab: The Western U.P. Farm to School project is funded by the Michigan Health Endowment Fund and is a collaboration among community partners, including WUPPDR, Michigan State University Extension, Michigan Technological University, Lake Superior Stewardship Initiative, the Upper Peninsula Food Exchange, Ryan. St. Community Garden, Pewabic St. Community Garden, Calumet Community Garden, local farmers, food producers, and community members.

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years. She is a regular contributor to Rural Innovation Exchange, UPword and other Issue Media Group publications. 
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