By Diane Conners
---- — Would you chip in $1 if it meant 10 schoolchildren could eat locally grown fruits and vegetables at lunch on Monday?
How about $10 for 100 kids? That's about four classes full of children, bursting with energy and ready to learn new things.
You can do just that by contributing to a new campaign that starts this fall for a program that could be in place by spring: 10 Cents a Meal for School Kids & Farms. This new pilot project in the Grand Traverse region puts into action one of the 25 recommendations of the Michigan Good Food Charter, which suggests that extra spending power in tight school budgets will help Michigan's economy while putting healthy food on kids' plates.
Michigan schools serve 141.4 million lunches a year, so 10 cents a meal would send $14 million to the state's farms and food businesses. As Gary Derrigan, food service director for Traverse City Area Public Schools, notes that TCAPS is the largest restaurant in the region.
Many of the schools in our region are committed to serving more local food, but they face incredibly tight budgets. For about $50,000 a year, this program would provide up to nine school districts in four counties an extra 10 cents per school lunch for locally grown fruits and vegetables multiple times a week, mostly in elementary schools. Eventually, the project could be expanded throughout our region.
The10 Cents a Meal program is a joint, two-year effort of the Michigan Land Use Institute's farm to school program and the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District. It's supported by the Northwest Michigan Food & Farming Network, which has a big goal: For at least 20 percent of the food we eat in our region to be locally grown by 2020.
MLUI is working with these schools to serve and promote more locally grown food in their cafeterias. And each has pledged to match the 10 cents provided by the fund with an additional 10 cents from their existing school lunch dollars.
Many children eat up to two meals a day at school, where they're picking up lifetime eating habits. With an obesity crisis threatening the health of our kids, it's important they have great experiences with fruits and vegetables. Serving local food can provide that positive experience; it's delicious, and it's fun for the kids to get to know the farmers who grow their food.
At one local school, kids started eating five times as many apples when the food service director switched to juicy, flavorful fruit delivered from a farm down the road. It was a welcome change from the bland apples grown across the country — not for flavor, but for their ability to withstand handling and long-distance shipping.
At another school, a child told a Leelanau County farmer that his potatoes tasted sweeter than the regular potatoes the school had been serving — and the boy was right. The potato the farmer grew was a small and tender "new" potato instead of a dry, russet baking potato.
Another farmer reported that families were calling to buy asparagus from him because their kids had tasted it roasted at school and loved it.
The local food distribution company Cherry Capital Foods is raising money for 10 Cents a Meal through its annual Pigstock event for professional and serious home chefs. The public is invited to a seven-course meal prepared by featured chefs on Oct. 23, and Cherry Capital will donate $10 of every $75 ticket sold toward the program.
If you would like to support 10 Cents a Meal, feel free to contact me. And watch for a Facebook page soon with more details.
Diane Conners is senior policy specialist in food and farming at the Michigan Land Use Institute. She directs MLUI's farm to school program. Learn more about the Michigan Good Food Charter at michiganfood.org; and about the Food & Farming Network at foodandfarmingnetwork.org. More information on Pigstock is available at mlui.org and from Cherry Capital Foods.