Hoophouses for Health Improves Food Access & Helps Michigan Farmers
Hoophouses for Health is a program designed to increase vulnerable children and families’ access to good food while at the same time expanding the good food infrastructure and season extension capacity of Michigan farmers.
By: Michelle Gagliardi, Michigan Farmers Market Association
What is Hoophouses for Health?
Hoophouses for Health is a program designed to increase vulnerable children and families’ access to Good Food while at the same time expanding the Good Food infrastructure and season extension capacity of Michigan farmers. Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems (CRFS), the Michigan Farmers Market Association (MIFMA) and MSU Department of Horticulture partnered in 2011 to launch Hoophouses for Health in farmers markets with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. By 2014 Michigan Farm to School and Hoophouses for Health joined together in this effort to create new relationships between participating farmers and school and early childhood programs.
Hoophouses for Health gives young children increased access to locally grown nutritious foods at home, in early childhood settings, and at school while helping Michigan farmers expand their businesses. Since the programs integrated, 6,500 pounds of fruits and vegetables have been provided to schools and early childhood food programs through Hoophouses for Health while providing training and technical assistance to participating farmers.
A hoophouse is a structure farmers use to extend their growing season, scale up production, and provide diversified products throughout the year. Imagine a clear plastic tent—something you can walk around in—with the floor open to the ground. Vegetables, fruit, and flowers grow directly in the soil. These simple and affordable structures may look like a greenhouse, but lack heaters, cement floors or growing benches.
How does Hoophouses for Health work?
Farmers apply for a zero-interest, five-year “loan” to build a hoophouse that they then pay back in produce instead of cash. Farmers receive production technical assistance and support in building marketing relationships through area farmers markets and with school and early childhood food program providers.
The Center for Regional Food Systems builds the relationships between schools and early childhood programs and farmers to provide healthy, local foods to children. Farmers work with early childhood programs and schools to identify the needs of the children and their facilities. Once the needs are identified, farmers then supply early childhood programs or schools with produce that is incorporated into daily meals and snacks.
Participating farmers deliver produce to schools or early childhood programs and track that produce through invoices. Invoices are then submitted to MIFMA as repayment for their loan. The integration of these programs initiates relationships between farmers and food providers with the intention that they will continue after the incentive period has expired.
How Does a Hoophouse Benefit the Farmer?
As of July 2017, 70 loans totaling $718,763 have been disbursed to 60 farms. These loans have funded 240,066 square feet of new extended season growing space. By the end of 2016, 29 farm to school relationships were established.
Hoophouses for Health Moves Toward Electronic System
The Hoophouses for Health program is beginning the transition to an electronic system. An electronic system pilot supplies families with gift cards linked to their driver’s license or state issued I.D. This ensures that if a card gets lost the funds can be allocated to a new gift card through the owner’s I.D. Community partners load dollars to gift cards at their partnering farmers market. Hoophouses for Health farmers then accept the funds from the gift cards through a Hoophouses for Health app. Funds are available for up to 2-months. The gift card system lessens administrative burden while ensuring Hoophouses for Health dollars circulate back into the program if unused.
Hoophouses for Health Can Work in Other Places
The innovative pairing of Hoophouses for Health and Michigan Farm to School was designed as a scalable mode to be replicated in any community. Since its creation, Hoophouses for Health has sparked interest from around the country. This past June, Dru Montri, Executive Director of MIFMA, and Colleen Matts, Farm to Institution Specialist for MSU CRFS, presented a poster on Michigan Farm to School and Hoophouses for Health at the 9thBiennial Childhood Obesity Conference in San Diego, CA. Gaining recognition from over 2,000 attendees, the poster depicting “Increasing Access to Healthy Foods” complimented the Food Systems track of the conference.
In its seventh year of operation, Hoophouses for Health continues to support Michigan’s vulnerable children and families and grow agriculture production. Investments in Hoophouses for Health and Michigan Farm to School helps to support early childhood and school food programs, farmers, and community partners. Combining these two programs will provide long-term results. Children have increased access to healthy foods whether at home or school, schools and childcare programs are buying and serving more local nutritious foods, and farmers are given the opportunity to scale up production while providing more diversified products at their local farmers market.
To learn more about Hoophouses for Health visit hoophousesforhealth.org
To learn more about Michgian Farm to School, visit mifarmtoschool.msu.edu.
All photo credits go to MIFMA. (Top right image: Inside of hoophouse. Middle left: Farmers standing in front of hoophouse. Bottom right: Hoophouses for Health vouchers).