BY DIANE CONNERS
Special to the Record-Eagle
---- — I remember overhearing a school food service director explain to a local chef how little she had to spend on food, much less fresh and locally grown food — about $1.25 per lunch, with just 20 to 30 cents for produce. The chef shook his head and said he didn't know if he could do it.
He was right. It's not as easy as it might seem to get local food into school meals. It requires support from school boards, parents and teachers for dedicated, well-trained food service staff. It takes economically sustainable business connections between schools, farmers, processors and distributors. And it takes educational projects like school gardens that get kids interested.
It's a cliché, but it takes a community.
Businesses are a big part of our community here in northern Michigan. The Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, for example, just provided a very short-term loan to help a new consortium of farmers buy much-needed equipment to wash, sort and chop vegetables for schools. And in 2010, the 10-county Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance listed farm-to-school programs among its legislative priorities.
Now individual businesses are coming forward to support school-based local food efforts as part of a new initiative called 10 Cents a Meal for School Kids & Farms. It's a joint project of the nonprofit Michigan Land Use Institute, nine school districts and the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District to provide schools with greater ability to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables.
Last fall, Cherry Capital Foods, a local foods distribution company, donated $2,625, or $15 from each of 175 tickets sold for its third annual PigstockTC event. Epicure Catering donated an additional $150 at the event.
Now, Firefly Restaurant is donating $1 to 10 Cents a Meal from every dessert it sells. It's a part of Firefly's "Treat Yourself — Treat Your Community" promotion.
"I want our kids to get used to eating healthy, local food," said Scott Swanson, Firefly's general manager. "Many kids depend on schools for lunch, and in some cases, breakfast. If we can get these habits formed early, we can begin to eliminate health problems later in life — all while supporting the local farmers we are so lucky to have."
Firefly owner Jeff Wiltse agreed, and said developing more business for farms means more food and farm jobs.
"It's important to embrace our neighbors who are doing business in northern Michigan," he said. "Healthy farms in the Grand Traverse region will make for a healthy community in the long term."
The participating school districts have pledged to match each 10 cents provided by the fund with 10 cents from their own regular school lunch dollars. That means the $100,000 raised for the two-year project actually will put $200,000 into the local economy.
Firefly's donations start on Valentine's Day — a nice time for a treat after eating sparingly since the holidays. I know I'm going to splurge on dessert and toast all the farmers, food service staff and businesspeople who make such a difference for our kids and economy.
Diane Conners is a senior policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute.