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10 Cents a Meal Puts Local Beets on the School Menu
By: Abigail Harper, Michigan State University Extension - 01/12/2018

Being a rural school district, local agriculture has always been a topic of importance to families, school board, and administrators at Thornapple-Kellogg (T-K) Public Schools. Jessica Endres, director of dining services at T-K Schools, believed it was essential for students to understand where their food comes from. Endres had started to use Cultivate Michigan to occasionally feature local foods. Interest from Amy Foreman, a teacher in the school district, resulted in a collaborative garden and cooking club. Through this program, students learn about nutrition and gardening activities with Amy and then take vegetables from the garden into the kitchen to cook with Jessica. Jessica rapidly saw the impact of these programs saying, "It was amazing to me to see students that had never seen a fresh zucchini before, even in rural areas."

Though it was never hard to sell the idea of farm to school to the broader community, limited budgets created challenges in purchasing more local food in the school district. That changed in September of 2017 when Thornapple-Kellogg was a recipient of the 10 Cents a Meal Program, a state pilot program that provides schools with up to 10 cents per meal in match funding to purchase and serve Michigan-grown fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Having already developed some farm to school activity, receiving 10 Cents a Meal was the financial kick needed to ramp up T-K 's local food purchasing and get further support from the administration.

Through the program, T-K now features local products monthly. In October of the 2017-2018 school year, food service staff featured local beets, secured from Victory Farms in neighboring Hudsonville through Cherry Capital Foods, in a roasted veggie hash. These beets were added to a Gordon Food Service root veggie mix, which allowed their local foods to stretch further. Students had the option of choosing it as a side dish with their hot lunch, and Jessica provided taste tests in line and in the cafeteria to encourage more students to try the hash. Given that it sometimes takes more than one exposure for students to be open to exploring new foods, the roasted veggie hash was featured again one week later, with more students choosing it as a side dish.

Beets aren't the only new foods T-K students are tasting. In September, students got to taste and compare different varieties of apples. In November, they tried balsamic glazed roasted Brussels sprouts that led to an 83 percent approval rating from students who tried them. Students are able to weigh in on dishes they like, which gives food service staff an idea of what local foods are more popular.

A key part of T-K's success is involving the food service staff in the process. "I think most of the staff really care, and this reinforces to them that they are doing something good," says Jessica. Including staff in the decision making process has given them more ownership, and they are more likely to encourage students to try the new products on the food service bar. Likewise, Jessica is focused on using professional development opportunities to train her staff on how to more easily incorporate fresh foods into their bar through fresh processing and knife skills training.

Jessica is excited to see meal counts increase, as both staff and kids enjoy the new foods and recipes brought in. A food service blog and outreach campaigns are also helping to increase meal counts. A newsletter is sent out to parents when local foods are featured, and parents can sign up for text alerts when there are special features. Cultivate Michigan posters line the walls of the cafeteria, and Jessica makes sure any local foods are highlighted on the menus. She is also aiming to increase adult participation, making salads with local ingredients for staff meals. Adults can be important to promotion, as students often look to them to build habits. Increasing adult meal participation is another way food service is aiming to increase income for the food service program and their local food budget.

While money can be a factor, one that 10 Cents a Meal is helping to reduce, Jessica thinks food service needs to look at more than just the bottom line. "I truly believe that if you are offering more fresh, healthy, tasty food, you're going to increase your meals," said Jessica. That increase in meal participation means more funding, and Jessica says it's worth it to see less food thrown in the trash and more students eating and enjoying lunch.

Michigan State University Extension Community Food Systems team is working with schools throughout the state that have received funds from 10 Cents a Meal to make more local agriculture connections and increase the local food they serve. You can learn more about farm to school initiatives in Thornapple-Kellogg Schools by visiting Jessica Endre's Blog.

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