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Diane Conners

By Diane Conners

The Michigan legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last fall included funding in their budgets for an innovative program that helps schools buy Michigan-grown produce, building on the successful momentum of a three-year pilot. Expectations were high for an even stronger fourth year.

What a difference a veto makes.

10 Cents a Meal for School Kids & Farms got caught up in the governor’s 147 line-item vetoes. Many people across the state — farmer organizations, health coalitions, schools and others — are urging legislators and the governor to fund the program this year in a supplemental budget. The Michigan Vegetable Council this week was circulating a letter to the governor and legislative leaders. Michigan Farm Bureau officials said they also planned to weigh in. The Healthy Kids, Healthy Michigan coalition just made 10 Cents its top policy priority for the year.

It’s not too late.

Farms and businesses like food hub distributor Cherry Capital Foods still have apples, carrots, potatoes and more that schools can purchase. Michigan Farm to Freezer has frozen root vegetable mixes, fruit for smoothies, and even asparagus if schools can’t wait for spring. The funds also can be spent for summer meal programs and to stock up for fall. Under the legislature’s budget, the matching grant would have been available for early child care centers, too.

The program’s absence is making a difference.

Consider the MI Farm Cooperative. It’s made up of more than 12 northwest Michigan farms that offer schools a single ordering and distribution system. Members range in age from their 20s to their 70s — and they are innovators.

One is Jim Bardenhagen, the retired Leelanau County Cooperative Extension Director who helped launch farm-to-school efforts in our region way back in 2004 and is still at it, growing potatoes, apples, cherries, table grapes and more.

Another is Nic Welty of 9 Bean Rows Farm, a data-driven, four-season fruit and vegetable grower who once was named Farmer of the Year by Michigan Food & Farming Systems, a nonprofit that assists small- and medium-sized farms.

The Cooperative’s numbers show sales to area schools before the veto on Sept. 30 were 11 percent higher than the previous autumn at the same time. The schools, all former 10 Cents participants, had reason to anticipate grants because of the bipartisan support. But then came the veto, and sales dipped.

“Farmers have inventory on hand and there is a sense of nervousness going into 2020 as to the viability of holding inventory for the hope of school sales or the need to find alternative marketplaces,” Welty said.

Stability, instead of nervousness, depends on making sure that 10 Cents legislative leader Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, is supported in his efforts and that legislative leaders and the governor know the difference this “dime” makes. Schools match their grants with federal lunch dollars, keeping those federal dollars here.

And children get to eat and try a greater diversity of fruits and veggies.

They still could, if that bipartisan support is restored — soon.

Diane Conners is senior policy specialist at Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, which coordinated the original, local 10 Cents pilot project that inspired the legislature to create the state program. She can be reached at diane@groundworkcenter.org for more information on contacting legislators and the governor.

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