TRAVERSE CITY — Isaiah Wunsch for years has recognized the value of local produce.

The Old Mission Peninsula apple farmer is delighted to see that local children are starting to understand as well.

10 Cents a Meal — a pilot program launched three years ago in pockets of northwest Michigan — provides local school districts with a 10-cent, state-funded match for introducing fresh, locally-grown produce into their cafeteria menus. This year the program is expanding.

“While this program has been valuable to our business from a profit standpoint, it’s been most valuable in terms of supporting some of our goals as far as community outreach and environmental sustainability,” Wunsch said.

The program is designed to connect students with local farms, encourage produce consumption, pad the wallets of local farmers and infuse new lessons into district curriculums. Schools use lunch dollars to purchase produce and are reimbursed by up to a dime for each per meal.

It provides a “financial cushion” for food service directors to try new things on an increasingly tight budget, organizers said. Most schools have only about 20-30 cents to spend on produce for each meal. By all measures the program is working as planned.

Diane Conners, senior policy specialist at the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, said local schools within the last few years have added 40 different types of produce from 43 farms in 18 counties. Last year local school districts spent about $120,000 more on local produce from the previous year.

“We see the power that having local food and activities in the classroom can have for kids and also for the farmers in building markets,” Conners said, noting dozens of community organizations and businesses involved in getting the program started in 2013.

Sixteen districts are now on board in the third year of the pilot, including Glen Lake Community Schools, Traverse City Area Public Schools, Leland Public School District, Frankfort-Elberta Area Schools and Northport Public School District. It’s also poised for further growth.

A $250,000 state appropriation to further fund the pilot originated in the senate under the direction of Senator Darwin Booher and was included in the final state school aid budget this year. State representative Larry Inman also touted his involvement in getting the project off the ground.

“We need to start these individuals at a young age eating healthy food and local food,” Inman said, noting a desire to expand the program across the state. “This is something we absolutely have to do.”