Locally grown foods are making their way to school cafeterias in Michigan thanks to the Farm to School Network.
The Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems has been partnering with the Michigan Department of Education for the last four years to track local food purchases by K-12 schools.
In 2017, 888 Michigan school food service directors completed the annual School Nutrition Program application, and 537, or 60 percent, said they currently purchase local foods for school meals and 18 percent of their food purchased comes directly from local farms, according to the tracker.
That is an increase from 2014 when 878 Michigan school food service directors completed their SNP applications, and 470, or 54 percent, of respondents said they purchased local foods, with 14 percent of their foods coming from local farms.
Two West Michigan farms participating in Farm to School are BelleHarvest and Gavin Orchards.
Belding-based BelleHarvest, a cooperative of apple orchards owned by 10 apple growers, has been around since the 1950s, distributing apples to retailers across the country and local retailers such as Family Fare and D&W Fresh Markets.
While the organization has been working with schools sparingly, Chris Sandwick, vice president of sales and marketing, said as schools began to show an increasing interest in working with local farmers and purchasing local foods within the last five years, its relationship with local schools has intensified.
Depending on the size of the school district, he said BelleHarvest delivers about 2,000 pounds of apples to five school districts in West Michigan per week.
“One of the things we commit to when we partner with schools is consumption,” Sandwick said. “We want the kids to eat these apples but too often the wrong kinds of fruits end up in the school system. The red delicious apples that couldn’t get sold somewhere else end up in a school, and in our opinion, more times than not, those apples end up as projectiles rather than as meals.”
Gavin Orchards, located at 16495 40th Ave. in Coopersville, also works with Michigan school districts to deliver fruits. It has been working with Farm to School since 2010. Apples, peaches and vegetables are grown on the more-than-200-acre farm.
Mike Gavin of Gavin Orchards said the company started out doing direct sales into the school district through advertising and by word of mouth, and the program kept on growing and expanding to the point where it now is delivering around 15,000 pounds of apples and peaches to school districts across the state weekly.
Although apples are harvested during the fall at the start of the school year, they are preserved in a storage facility and delivered throughout the school year.
“The longer-term storage is done through a controlled atmosphere process,” Sandwick said. “Apples respire, they take in oxygen and they give off carbon dioxide and so what we are able to do is put them in a room and bring the oxygen down 1.5 percent, and we essentially put them to sleep to stop the maturation process.”
While Farm to School helps schools get their food locally, it also helps farmers by providing a new market for them to sell their fruits, said Colleen Matts, Farm to Institution specialist for MSU Center for Regional Food Systems.
“It is a stable and steady market to help schools,” she said. “It may not be a big money maker because schools have tight budgets, but they buy in volumes. So, if a farmer is looking to diversify their market in order to manage risk, then institutional markets such as schools are a good idea because it can be that stable, steady market that can protect them when something happens in the broader marketplace. We’ve seen that schools have good relationships with farmers who are supplying to them directly. They tend to be loyal customers.”