By Kathy Gibbons
TRAVERSE CITY — The Michigan Land Use Institute has received a $100,000 USDA grant to ramp up its efforts to get local produce on school lunch trays.
MLUI Senior Policy Specialist Diane Conners said the money serves a couple of purposes. First, it will enable the hiring of two more people to conduct cafeteria tastings and classroom curriculum and school garden activities "to get kids excited about eating fresh and local foods."
"Our education is focusing on elementary schools," Connors said. "We're really trying to impact that set of kids."
Targeted schools are in the Traverse City Area Public Schools, Benzie County Central Schools, Frankfort-Elberta Area Public Schools, Suttons Bay Public Schools, Northport Public School, Leland Public School, Glen Lake Community Schools and Central Lake Public Schools.
"We're already in some of those schools, but this will be more than doubling it," she said.
In addition, $40,000 is earmarked for equipment. That includes a new cooler/freezer unit at Platte River Elementary.
"We put a special emphasis on Platte River for a cooler-freezer because it's an incredibly cramped and inefficient kitchen, yet that is where the fifth graders in the Benzie Central school system feed in, so all the sixth graders in the Benzie Central Schools feed in there," she said.
The grant also supports purchase of a variety of equipment that will enable the cutting, washing, drying and bagging of local produce for local schools' use — an entirely new endeavor.
"Many of us have gotten used to buying prewashed and dried salad greens, and the schools are needing that as well," Conners said. "They need to have broccoli and cauliflower and potentially, carrots. They need it all washed, chopped, dried and bagged, so it's going to be providing that capacity to provide these vegetables to the schools the way they need them."
Nic Welty of 9 Bean Rows farm in Leelanau County is taking the lead with a consortium of farmers from several area counties whose produce would feed into the processing operation, which would utilize the newly purchased commercial-scale equipment.
"Some of the farmers are smaller farms like CSA farms, and others, their business model is such that they really don't have any desire to scale up to be big farms, but they each grow some crops really well," Conners said. "One grows salad greens really well, another grows carrots really well. They're intrigued by the idea of scaling up on one crop as opposed to their whole farm that meets school needs."
Welty said the goal is to provide most of what's on participating schools' salad bars, which will encourage use of local fresh produce because it will save the schools labor costs.
"Basically what I'm looking at in this processing operation is, it's going to take fresh vegetables ... the salad greens, which is my specialty, carrots, cut broccoli, cauliflower, cut bell peppers and essentially clean it, wash it and sanitize it so it's going to show up at the school within a very short time period," he said. "It's extra fresh and the schools won't have to worry about washing or cutting it."
Welty will be managing the processing operation and said he hopes to be up and running in limited capacity by spring and ready to go full force by fall of 2013.
"I'm very excited," he said. "It's been like five years of working on this."
Conners said the processing operation will start out at a temporary central location and will eventually be housed in the food hub being developed at Grand Traverse Commons. Plans for the hub have included a community kitchen for educational classes and value-added agricultural product development, cold storage and product processing and aggregation for restaurants, schools, hospitals and grocery stores.