“It was so good my taste buds went to taste town!”
That was a first grader in a Traverse City elementary school talking not about candy or French fries, but carrots. The carrots were grown at the 20-acre Providence Farm in neighboring Antrim County.
Thanks to a $375,000 line item in the state’s school aid budget, Michigan has entered the second year of a state pilot program that has 95,000 students in 32 districts in three parts of the state tasting produce grown by Michigan farms.
And businesses—from 20-acre to 1,800-acre farms, as well as food distributors and processors—are experiencing steady growth in a promising market of “farm to school” sales as a result.
The 10 Cents a Meal for School Kids & Farms pilot is a policy initiative worth watching for its common sense approach to investing both in the health of school children and Michigan’s economy—and for its bipartisan appeal.
The program provides an incentive match of up to 10 cents a meal for grant-winning schools to purchase Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables. Those are the foods that health experts say are crucial for children’s health, whether it’s for preventing obesity and diabetes or the uptake of lead.
And Michigan farms are primed to meet this need. The state is second only to California in the diversity of its crops. Our mass food distribution system, however, means Washington apples and California carrots are often as likely to make it into our schools as produce grown right down the road.
“We’ve been especially keen on creating wholesale markets that reach more people,” said Andrea Romeyn of Providence Farm. “The impact of the 10 Cents a Meal program has added reassurance to grow our business.”
A first-year report from the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), which administers the 10 Cents pilot, showed:
- Participating districts served 49 Michigan grown fruits and vegetables from 86 farms in 28 counties. An additional 16 businesses also reaped sales.
- Examples of those other businesses include Michigan-products distributor Cherry Capital Foods, which has expanded from Traverse City to serve retail and school buyers around the state as demand has grown. Another is Michigan Farm to Freezer, which makes the state’s produce available year-round.
- Food service directors, meanwhile, named 30 new fruits and vegetables they tried in meals. “The kids are now asking, ‘Any new fruits or veggies to try?’ They keep me on my toes,” one food service director said in an MSU Center for Regional Food Systems survey for the project.
- Food service directors also said local farms often grow varieties that have more flavor or interest for students, such as multi-colored carrots, and fresh, juicy peaches that some kids had never even tasted before.
School food service directors typically have $1 to $1.20 to spend on food for each student’s lunch, and only 20 to 30 cents to spend on produce. The extra dime from the state pilot program gives them breathing room to try new things, and makes it worthwhile to try ordering from new, more localized vendors.
“I look forward to seeing this as a big part of our future in our state and in our schools,” said state Sen. Darwin Booher, R-Evart, the northern Michigan legislator who first championed the state pilot after hearing about a local initiative in Traverse City that was based on the Michigan Good Food Charter.
The state program started in Michigan Prosperity Regions 2 and 4 in northwest and west Michigan and was expanded this year to also include Region 9 in southeast Michigan.
State Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, praised the expansion.
“This is the essence behind the 10 Cents a Meal program: it helps schools and local farms to partner together to not only put locally-produced items in the mouths of young Michiganders, but in their minds too,” Zemke told MDE for a press release.
Providence Farm’s Andrea Romeyn has seen more than just carrots capture children’s imaginations.
“I’ve had more and more kids drag their parents over to my farmers market booth and request items like parsnips because they tried them in school,” she said.
It’s another taste that went to taste town. And one that holds promise for Michigan’s economy if legislators continue to expand the program in next year’s budget.