State lawmakers consider 10 Cents a Meal program

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From staff reports

The Michigan legislature is considering whether to continue, or expand, a new state pilot project that is increasing business from schools for a significant number of farms and related food companies throughout the state and in Leelanau County.

The 10 Cents a Meal pilot, to which the legislature allocated $250,000 last June for the 2016-2017 school year, so far has helped schools serve 49 different Michigan-grown fruits, vegetables and legumes to students, according to a new mid-pilot report published [in late March] by the Michigan Department of Education (MDE).

“The 10 cents a meal program has greatly increased our fresh produce business to area schools,” said Leelanau County farmer and Michigan State University Extension director emeritus Jim Bardenhagen. “The students are getting healthy, tasty local fruits and vegetables, which school food service directors tell us the students like and eat. The local farmers get to sell more produce, which helps the growers’ economics. Basically, great benefits for all involved.”

“Students appreciate that food is coming from their area and supporting local farmers, said Glen Lake Community Schools food service director Jackie Cobb. “We started a Farm to School Friday once a month where all menu items are local, and they really are embracing the menus.”

“Parents have told me numerous stories of how their children are identifying vegetables at markets and stores that they hadn’t even tried before,” said Leland Public Schools student advocate and Farm to School coordinator Laura Miller

Dave Ruszel, food service director for Leland Public Schools, said he is trying foods he never imagined he’d try with kids before, such as kale salad, which “flies” off the salad bar. “It is very strange that kids like beets,” he said. “I’ve put canned beets on the salad bar, and the kids don’t like them. But I do a fresh beet with olive oil and vinegar, and the kids love it.”

According to the report, the incentive program catalyzed sales for 86 different farms in 28 counties and 16 additional businesses such as processors and distributors. Of those, 35 farms were in our 10-county region of northwest Lower Michigan.

The program provides $210,000 in match incentive funding — up to 10 cents per meal — for 16 grant-winning districts to purchase and serve Michigan-grown produce to an estimated 48,000 students. That means $420,000 for Michigan’s agricultural economy. Of those schools, seven are in our region, and nine are on the west side of the state.

The pilot provided sales for farms diverse in size, from a 20-acre farm in Antrim County targeting local markets to a nearly 2,000-acre farm in Oceana County that has the capacity to supply the largest of our state’s schools.

“The 10 Cents a Meal program has added reassurance to grow our business through loans for the building of a new barn and purchasing of more efficient equipment,” said Andrea Romeyn of Providence Farm in Antrim County. “We have hope for expansion and longevity.”

“Institutional school sales increased 30 percent because of 10 Cents a Meal,” said Mark Coe, of northwest Michigan’s Farm to Freezer. Cherry Capital Foods, the Traverse City-based distributor statewide of Michigan grown products, reported a 49 percent increase in sales to the 10 Cents schools.

“Encouraging institutions to purchase more food from local sources is something that is extremely important, and undoubtedly has a positive impact on our farmer members producing food in regions all across Michigan,” said Kevin Robson, Michigan Farm Bureau horticulture specialist.

The MDE report is filled with stories and quotes from food service directors, educators and farmers who share the impact of 10 Cents a Meal on children and business.

The $250,000 in funding for the current pilot is like one cherry in an orchard when it comes to the state’s school aid budget, which is currently being considered at between $195 million and $215 million in general funds, not including the $12 billion in restricted funds that go to local schools.

Yet, as the MDE report shows, that bite-sized funding makes a big impact for healthy meals for students and markets for farms. A key state Senate subcommittee has included continued funding for the 2017-2018 school year, but the House, so far, has not.

If you believe 10 Cents should be funded, at least at the scale of a cherry or two, talk with your legislators, and encourage them to read the MDE report, before the state House and Senate merge their budgets in May. The report is available at www.TenCentsMichigan.org.

An earlier version of this op-ed appeared as an Agriculture Forum in the Traverse City Record-Eagle on April 8.

Full disclosure: Glen Arbor Sun editor and publisher Jacob Wheeler is communications manager at the Groundwork Center for Resilience Communities, a partner in preparing MDE’s 10 Cents a Meal report.