Lunches packed for Detroit students

School Food Services Face Force of Nature

March 9, 2021 |

ABOVE PHOTO: Lunches for Detroit students packed for home delivery in early days of COVID.

I remember a blizzardy day nine years ago when area farmers packed the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station in Leelanau County to hear area school food service directors talk about their potential to buy more locally grown food. The school staff didn’t sugarcoat obstacles they faced, like having only $1 to $1.20 a meal for food. But they made it clear that they wanted to work with farmers and distributors to find solutions.

One farmer, who’d never found schools to be open to sales, left saying: “Wow. There’s really been a big shift in attitude. They were really interested in figuring out how to buy things.”

We’re at another major turning point for the farm to school market, making it a crucial time for farmers and distributors to talk with potential buyers again. That’s because the state’s 10 Cents a Meal for Michigan’s Kids & Farms program was expanded from $575,000 to $2 million, and for the first time it is available to schools and early childhood centers statewide instead of just pilot regions.

This commitment from policymakers holds promise for long-term stability and embedding the value of serving fresh, locally grown food for our children into Michigan’s identity. Legislators from Detroit to the Upper Peninsula are hailing the program. The governor just included it again in her 2022 budget. And the program’s key legislative champion, Sen. Wayne Schmidt of Traverse City, is committed to seeing the program grow.

The current year’s grant can be used to purchase produce for eligible meals and snacks through September 2021. That makes it ideal for farmers connecting with early childhood centers that operate year round, school summer meal programs, and to launch meals for the new school year. One previous grantee said 10 Cents a Meal opened her eyes to the astonishing variety of produce available in Michigan.

But do all school food service and early childhood education directors know what products are available and when?

No. And that snowy day from a decade ago reminds me of something food service directors and farmers have in common.

Farmers know what it feels like to face an overwhelming force of nature. Something as usually welcome as rain can create a sense of chaos if it comes when dry hay is about to be baled or when too much moisture will crack open ripe cherries before they’re picked.

School food service staff also are facing a force of nature right now – COVID-19. It’s a whirlwind. Sometimes staffers are serving children in cafeterias. Or they’re rolling carts of meals down to kids in classrooms because the cafeteria is needed for spacing of student desks. Or they’re boxing up food for children to eat at home because school buildings are closed. And sometimes they’re doing all three on any given day, depending upon how COVID is impacting their community.

School staff are working hard just to keep their heads above water. Farmers, as people who understand what it’s like working against a storm, consider reaching out to them.

This article first ran in the Traverse City Record-Eagle Ag Forum.

Diane Conners is senior policy specialist at Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, which manages the website for the 10 Cents a Meal program. Information for schools and early childhood centers about applying for the program is available on the web site’s News section. Current grantees are listed on the About page.

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