It all started when Brandon Seng, director of food programs for Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan, began brainstorming about how to supply fresh fruits and vegetables to school food programs through the winter months. The growing season is short in the Grand Traverse area, however, making it seem impossible to find an abundant source of farm-to-table produce to meet the nutritional needs of local school children.
His solution: Farm to Freezer.
The simple idea of blanching and flash freezing everything from asparagus to zucchini—all produced by farms in the Northwest Michigan region—has led to the exponential growth of a revolutionary food-service program in Michigan that doesn't just provide students with better meals and help farmers increase their harvests. The Farm to Freezer program also provides life-changing opportunities for workers who slice and dice a full line of premium products.
"Farm to Freezer started as an idea when I was working in a different capacity in a school-lunch program," said Seng, who sought advice from his friend, Mark Coe, former manager of a large fruit and vegetable farm in Manistee County. "We started talking about the need for produce in the winter time because we had a bountiful amount of produce in the summer. I started freezing some of it myself at the school with Mark's help, and it really just kind of caught on. More schools wanted to get engaged (in the program). We took that to the next level and launched the business line at Goodwill Industries.
"It's really a win-win program for us," he said. "It's a win for farms because it's capturing a segment of the market (fresh frozen local fruits and vegetables) that otherwise wasn't captured. We're a full-on workforce development program, bringing folks in to learn to process food and achieve jobs in the local economy."
It is the unique Farm to Freezer labor force that sets this program apart from anything else in the state.
Seng and Coe, who was hired to oversee Farm to Freezer, implemented a job-training program using local men and women from second-chance backgrounds to fulfill all of the labor requirements of the nonprofit operation. All of the employees, who might otherwise be unable to secure employment, handle the processing, packaging, labeling and delivery of fruits and vegetables to an expanding network of retailers.
"We get a lot of folks who are coming through transformation in their life," Seng explained. "A lot of them are coming from prison, addiction, homelessness—folks who are looking for that fresh start. A lot of times, they're folks who've been out of the workforce for eight or 10 years. And through our program, we're able to show people that here's what you are capable of, and they gain confidence. We believe in second chances here—and third chances and fourth chances.
"A lot of people think … they're learning how to dice vegetables and how to sauté and how to blast freeze, but we're really teaching people that they matter. And that, for us, at the end of the day, is what it's all about."
The warm-hearted Coe, a Benzie-Manistee County Farm Bureau board member, is the proud and enthusiastic mentor of rebounding men and women in the 90-day program that has reshaped numerous lives. Since its inception four years ago, Farm to Freezer is responsible for placing more than 50 people in permanent jobs.
The training is provided by Coe and other professionals in the food-service industry who volunteer their time.
"I came to this program through misfortune in my life," said Mike Bernhardt, 48, Farm to Freezer's team leader in the kitchen. "I was educated through Ferris State University in environmental science. I worked for a local health department (in Ingham County) for 10 years and then I took off from there and worked for a private consulting firm. Then the economy started to go bad. I was laid off and I didn't handle it well.
"I was one of those people that had their downs in life—mine was drinking. I ended up spiraling downward—a tornado of devastation—until I lost everything and had no hope," he said of spending 1½ years in prison due to three drunk-driving convictions. "I wound up in a rehab facility, trying to get my life together."
Bernhardt got his second lease on life after joining the program in the fall of 2014. He performed so well Seng and Coe rewarded him with a full-time position the following January.
Mark Coe & Taylor Moore
"I'm glad they did because I really enjoy the program," Bernhardt said. "I'm taking advantage of this opportunity, I'm a good employee, but I said to Mark in a meeting last week, 'Where would I be without this program?' Normal employers are going to look at a criminal history like mine and they're not going to take a chance.
"I have no driver's license. Mark picks me up on his way to work every day. Where would I be? I could be drunk in a ditch, dead, in prison … who knows where I'd be," he added. "I'd like to think I wouldn't be in any of those places, but I'm grateful where I am. I like what we do here. I like the idea of local. I intend on staying as long as I can."
Click here to watch Mike's story.
Patricia Smith. 30, feels just as blessed to be part of the Farm to Freezer labor force.
She picked up the pieces of a shattered life in Cadillac and relocated with her infant son to Traverse City almost a year ago. She and her child lived in a temporary shelter and she struggled to find employment.
"I was having a hard time finding a job," said Smith, who serves as the lead packer at Farm to Freezer and makes deliveries to 24 local retailers in the region. "I'm a single mother, I have a 4-year-old child that I couldn't find daycare for and I didn't have a car. I just up and left my old life and decided I wanted to do something new. I had done a lot of interviews. I just didn't believe in myself. I didn't really have a lot to offer."
Smith met Bernhardt at a local career fair and it altered the path of her life.
"On that day, I had been pulling my son on a sled because I didn't have a vehicle," she recalled. "I didn't even plan on applying for the job because I just didn't believe I was going to find anything. As I started working here, I started to find the tools to believe in myself … to keep moving forward. There's an entire team here.
"I know that if I struggle with anything that somebody is going to be there to support me."
Click here to watch Patricia's story.
The life-transformation stories of the job-training program are part of the overall success story.
Farm to Freezer, providing local grocery shoppers with an alternative to nationally branded frozen commodities, has grown from 12,000 pounds and $3,000 in sales of frozen fruits and vegetables in 2013 to 100,000 pounds and $139,000 last year. It is preparing to launch a new organic line and projects sales of more than $200,000 this year.
In all, there are 22 farms selling produce to Farm to Freezer. Four to six more will join the lineup this year.
The Farm to Freezer program is preparing to sprout in other locations throughout the state. Officials from Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and Detroit have visited Goodwill Industries in Traverse City to get a look at things.
"We want to see this program kinda take root at a statewide level and see where it goes from there," Seng said.