posted on December 9, 2010 1:41pm
Schools across the state and country are expressing interest in integrating fresh, local foods into their lunch menus. One Michigan State University (MSU
) specialist utilized Project GREEEN (Generating Research and Extension to meet Economic and Environmental Needs) support to provide
them with the tools to do just that.
Colleen Matts is the Farm to Institution Specialist with the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at MSU
and leader on the project titled “Farm to School: Realizing the Opportunity.” Matts was the first staff person to work full-time on farm-to-school programming and soon realized that there was an interest among schools, but a lack of direction.
“I found that schools and food service programs were interested in fresh, local food, but really weren’t sure where to start,” she said. “They needed some sort of guide or resource to get them started.”
In 2007, Matts made a connection with Jenice Momber and Kathy Gutowski, food service and nutrition directors for three school districts in Manistee County. Momber and Gutowski were facing many of the same problems as their counterparts throughout the state—they wanted to incorporate local foods into their menus, but time and resources were limited. With technical assistance on the planning end, however, they were willing to make the leap to try something new.
“There are a lot of opportunities for schools who want to include local products in their lunches,” Matts said. “It’s just a matter of figuring out the logistics.”
While providing resources for schools was Matts’ goal, it was imperative that she also work with farmers to determine how they could fit into a farm-to-school program. She found that farmers can be wary about participating in such a partnership.
“Farmers don’t want to get stuck,” she said. “They don’t want to get into a contract that benefits only one side, and they don’t want
to be in a situation where they can’t meet the needs of their customer.”
In order to help both parties, Matts put together a set of guides—one titled “Purchasing Michigan Products: A Step-by-Step Guide” focused toward school food service directors and one titled “Marketing Michigan Products: A Step-by-Step Guide” aimed at farmers—that would walk them through setting up a farm-to-school program and address challenges. Her goal was to break down communication barriers and lay out easy-to-follow steps.
Each group had a series of different challenges to overcome. School staff members have concerns about food quality, challenges with seasonality and availability, packaging, food safety and time requirements, both for planning and food preparation. Farmers were concerned with issues such as delivery, quantity, liability and speed of payment.
“None of these are things that can’t be overcome,” Matts said. “They just require flexibility and patience.”
Despite the challenges, the opportunities that exist for farm-to-school programs are overwhelming. Schools are able to provide their students with fresh produce and expand their menu options. They have a built-in opportunity to teach youth about food production.
“In one school, they were able to add Swiss chard to their salad which was something they’d never done before,” she shared. “It was all possible because the farmer they partnered with happened to have it available.”
The farmers benefit just as much from the program. Farm-to-school projects provide an expanded market opportunity and an outlet for crops that are grown in smaller volumes. Farmers are able to get a higher price point for products that are sold fresh.
“Both the school and the farmers are able to benefit from positive PR,” Matts added. “The schools show they’re supporting the community with the tax dollars they’re given, and farmers show that they’re actively involved in the community. It’s a win-win.”
One farmer in Manistee County partnered with the schools in the first year and provided a market for nearly $1,800 of local foods. In the second year of the program, two farmers provided the school with nearly $3,000 worth of fresh, local goods.
In addition to the products that can be sourced locally, the schools also began placing pressure on their larger suppliers for products that are produced in Michigan. The schools started coordinating the program for the first time on their own in the fall of 2010. It continues to be successful, with another farm joining the program.
“We’re now at a point where food service directors have the tools they need to do a farm-to-school program on their own, and farmers have the education they need to get involved,” Matts said.
There are between 60 and 100 farm-to-school programs across the state, according to Matts. A number of different non-profit organizations are available to help with planning and organization of new programs. As the demand for local food and concern for childhood health continue to increase, schools across the state will be looking for ways to participate in such a program.
“There is lots of work yet to be done,” Matts said. “We would like to do a grant program for schools to start farm-to-school programs and expand resources to include education about school gardens. There’s a world of possibilities still before us.”