Many Michigan farmers will sell significantly more fruits and vegetables to Michigan schools this fall, thanks to a new law championed by area legislators. And if those champions have their way, our farmers could eventually be selling even more of their fresh produce to schools across the state.

Michigan will provide nearly $250,000 to schools that successfully compete for state matching grants aimed at purchasing Michigan-grown produce this school year. That means $500,000 or more in new sales for our farmers, some of whom participated in a local pilot project —10 Cents a Meal — that first launched in 2013 throughout three counties in the Grand Traverse region.

Farmers interested in this promising new market should start talking to school food service directors, supportive distributors like Cherry Capital Foods, and processors like Goodwill’s Farm to Freezer in the next two weeks.

The Michigan Department of Education expects to send grant applications to school food service directors Aug. 9, which are due back by Aug. 23. This quick turnaround will allow successful schools time to purchase before reopening in September. Applicants must identify products they can purchase.

Parents and other supporters should know that the legislation calls not only for local food purchasing, but also for educational activities like school vegetable gardens. Teachers new to this curriculum can obtain carefully vetted lessons through the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District at farmtoschool.tbaisd.org.

The grants provide schools up to 10 cents per lunch in matching funds to purchase Michigan produce. It will be available to schools in 10 Northwest Michigan counties from Manistee to the Mackinac Bridge, and in 13 West Michigan counties including Grand Rapids and the Muskegon area. Any Michigan farm can develop new markets in both regions.

The three districts in the first year of the original pilot spent $150,000 on local produce in two years, compared to just $30,731 the year before it started. Four other districts later joined the pilot; the seven schools purchased 25 different products from 36 different area farms. Food service directors and farmers said the funding provided stability — for schools to try new foods like kale with students, and for farms to plan for school markets.

Legislators originally considered a $500,000 pilot that would have also included schools in the Thumb region, but lower than expected state revenues scaled the pilot back. Sen. Darwin Booher, R-Evart, introduced the program and pushed to keep it alive even as many others were cut. Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart; Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City' and Rep. Larry Inman, R-Acme also worked for funding.

“We think it has the potential of doing so many good things for our kids and for our state,” Sen. Booher said.

“The requirements schools have for serving more fruits and vegetables and good, healthy meals is the key to this,” he said. “Our farmers can grow it. They just have to have a market for it. I want to see it go statewide.”

Diane Conners is a senior policy specialist at the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, which coordinated the local pilot project. More information is available at groundworkcenter.org.

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