Local institutional sourcing in the “off-season”

Institutions can find a bounty of local fruits and vegetables available for purchase all winter.

The winter months in Michigan can seem long, dark and cold. The furthest thing from most resident’s mind is the Michigan agricultural bounty that is still several months away. However, expansion in season extension capacity, climate controlled storage, and individually quick frozen (IQF) technology has enabled Michigan institutions (schools, hospitals, universities, etc.) the unique ability to source, serve and promote local products all year.

The Michigan Farm to Institution Network (MFIN) has been operating for the past three years to promote specific Michigan products for purchase by local institutions through Cultivate Michigan. These promotions include four products per year and are released to coincide with the four seasons. The products which have been released in the winter season have included apples (2014), dry beans (2015) and cherries (2016). Each of these products offer institutional purchasers the ability to continue purchasing and highlighting local products in the winter. In addition to these products which rely on the use of controlled storage and/or some form of minimal processing (freezing and drying), there are many other products made available through indoor growing and season extension.

The increase of indoor, greenhouse growing and season extension (hoophouses/high tunnels) have also allowed institutions access to warm weather crops on a year-round basis. Things like salad greens, leafy greens and tomatoes are being grown year-round in heated and un-heated structures. These products are always in demand for institutions and can often be found locally. Another strategy that has allowed for more year-round sourcing of local products is the increase in capacity for freezing of local fruits and vegetables.

While some institutions have begun buying bulk Michigan products when in season and freezing it themselves, this strategy has storage and capacity limitations. Many fruit growers, specifically blueberries, have been moving towards new technology that allows them to freeze product and distribute throughout the year. In addition, Goodwill of Northern Michigan has created a job training and food processing program called Farm to Freezer, where local Michigan fruits and vegetables are lightly processed and frozen for sale to retail markets and institutions. Farm to Freezer has even created specific frozen product mixes for fruit smoothies and vegetable medleys. The Farm to Freezer operation has recently spun off of Goodwill and formed as its own organization in an effort to expand their services to more areas of the state.

For more information on how to continue source, supply, and serve Michigan products over the winter months visit www.cultivatemichI migan.org, or contact your local Michigan State University Extension Community Food Systems Educator. Cultivate Michigan is a project of the Michigan Farm to Institution Network, co-coordinated by MSU Center for Regional Food Systems and the Ecology Center, with support from MSU Extension.

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