LANSING — More Michigan students than ever have access to fresh produce, thanks to a state farm-to-school program.
The 10 Cents a Meal for School Kids and Farms program this year provided 135,000 children with locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables.
“I’m all about kids eating healthy food, and there’s nothing healthier than fresh produce that’s grown right in their home state,” said Diane Golzynski, the director of Health and Nutrition Services in the Department of Education.
Grant-winning school districts purchase fresh fruits, vegetables or dried beans grown in Michigan. The schools report how many meals they served that contained the fresh produce. And then the Department of Education reimburses them 10 cents for each meal, up to the value of their grant. The grant amount each school receives depends on how many meals they serve.
Locally grown produce tastes better, and the students can tell the difference, Golzynski said.
“They love it,” she said. “They’re asking for it, they’re eating more of it and they’re throwing less away.”
The program, now in its third year, continues to grow, according to a mid-year report. This year, 57 districts and 145 farms in 38 counties participated.
“We’ve added counties and money every year, and I would like to see us be able to go statewide,” Golzynski said.
The money for the program is written into the state budget. For the 2018-19 fiscal year, the program had $493,500 for school food reimbursements.
Glen Lake Community Schools in Leelanau County brings in one to two deliveries of local produce every week, said John Fields, the food service director.
“Teachers take advantage of it for learning opportunities as well as for nutritional value,” he said. “Having children not hungry throughout the day has helped them with staying focused on the task at hand.”
Locally grown produce allows for a variety from season to season. It also provides an opening for educational opportunities.
“Every so often they’ll ask when are we going to have plums or peaches or nectarines again, and we use that as an educational time to explain that there are certain seasons for it,” Fields said. “Then we’ll show them other items that are in season.”
The program also gives students a chance to try new foods.
“We take things that they don’t typically enjoy, say like a squash, and we recreate it to be something that is a little bit more kid friendly, and they find out that they actually do enjoy it,” Fields said.
The schools aren’t the only ones that benefit from the program. The farmers who grow the produce do too.
For Isaiah Wunsch, CEO of Wunsch Farms in Traverse City, the program has allowed him to venture into new crops.
“It’s created opportunities for us to grow some Asian pears and nectarines,” he said. “There’s not a huge mass market for those in Michigan, so we pretty much just grow them for the schools.”
The nectarines in particular, he said, are a big hit.
Knowing that the produce comes from a locally grown source gets kids more interested in it, Golzynski said.
“I’m noticing that the kids like it when it’s a farmer that they know,” she said. “When they know that it’s their neighbor’s farm, they get really excited, and then they’ll try the produce.”
Wunsch said he sees the program as a way to improve the health of Michigan residents in the long term.
“We know that if kids have bad experiences with fresh fruits and vegetables because they’re getting a lower quality produce, they’ll be much less likely to make fresh fruits and vegetables a part of their diet when they’re older,’’ he said.
Golzynski describes the program as a win-win-win.
“The school gets the extra money to be able to buy the produce, the farmers get the extra business so they can keep doing what they’re doing, and the kids get the fresh produce,” she said. “This is one of those rare programs where it feels like everybody wins.”