Friday, January 16, 2009

Food for Schools

Traverse City Record-Eagle

Editorial: Embrace new food rules

Until recently the fact that there were schools and farms in the same community was little more than a coincidence.

Schools rarely bought food grown on local farms, and farmers found it difficult, if not impossible, to submit bids to sell anything to local districts.

Slowly but surely that's changing, and to the better. Students are getting fresh food, farmers have a new revenue source and the money is staying local.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm recently signed three new state laws intended to reduce complications for districts interested in buying local. The new farm-to-school initiatives removed bidding restrictions and require the state to help schools start their own programs.

Previously, districts had to seek formal bids for any food purchases of more than $20,000. The state now allows informal bids, which can be as simple as calling farmers to ask their prices, of up to $100,000. State education and agriculture departments have to offer training, hire a statewide farm-to-school coordinator and set up a directory of farmers able and willing to bid on school contracts.

This all began because a few districts -- including a number in northwest Lower Michigan -- hired real chefs to produce food for school lunches from fresh ingredients. Districts were so used to reheating processed foods for lunches that changing was a big deal.

When Glen Lake Community Schools hired a chef and began adding local food to lunches, the district had to start small. "We could only do it around the fringes," said superintendent Joan Groening.

As of four years ago, just four area public districts, Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools and the private Leelanau School in Glen Arbor had farm-to-school programs, according to Diane Conners, farm-to-school coordinator with the Michigan Land Use Institute in Traverse City. Now, that number has grown to more than 30 schools.

Districts buy asparagus from Empire, fruit from Leelanau County and tomatoes in Kingsley. Traverse City's Catholic schools, Benzie County, Frankfort-Elberta and Northport districts have all purchased grass-fed, hormone-free beef from Benzonia farmer Randy Rice.

Eric Hahn, president of Traverse City-based Cherry Capital Foods LLC, which distributes onions, potatoes and fruit to local districts, says the region's economy will prosper.

There must, of course, be strong protections built into the process, including ways to track contracting to ensure the process is open to all area farmers who want to participate and not skewed toward a favorite few.

The food itself must be closely monitored to ensure freshness and purity. One reason frozen processed foods became so popular was that the onus for ensuring food safety was largely off the schools.

With help from the state, districts should quickly learn how to handle those problems and should embrace the farm-to-school idea. It's an idea -- and a mindset -- worth embracing.