Serving kids and supporting local foods through 10 Cents a Meal

Mason County Eastern Schools and MSU Extension partner to support local success of 10 Cents a Meal.

Mason County Eastern Schools kitchen staff prepare Michigan-grown purple potatoes for lunch. Photo: Mason County Eastern Schools.
Mason County Eastern Schools kitchen staff prepare Michigan-grown purple potatoes for lunch. Photo: Mason County Eastern Schools.
MCE 10 Cents. 6
10 Cents a Meal cafeteria signage in Mason County Schools. Photo: MSU Extension/Kendra Gibson.

About ten miles east of the Lake Michigan coastal town of Ludington is the village of Custer. Named after the Civil War general, the town is home to Mason County Eastern Schools, one of 53 recipients in the West Michigan region participating in the 2021-2022 10 Cents a Meal program.

10 Cents a Meal provides schools, early child education centers and other organizations participating in USDA child nutrition programming with match incentive funding (up to 10 cents per meal) to purchase and service Michigan-grown fruits, vegetables and legumes. The program is administered by the Michigan Department of Education and heading into its third year of statewide availability with an increase in funding.  

For Mason County Eastern Schools food service director Dana Kessel, 10 Cents a Meal allowed her an opportunity to regularly source local food for her menu that reaches more than 400 pre-K through 12th grade students. 

“Before the 10 Cents a Meal grant, we did not purchase Michigan-grown products," she said "When 10 Cents came around, we applied. It was so cool to get produce in and know that, in some cases, [food] came from a farm just 30 miles away from our school.” 

Kessel not only offers leadership as the food service director for the small rural school district, she is also often in the kitchen with her team of five other staff. Kessel said the kitchen staff have been supportive, helpful and happy to offer something healthy that kids can get excited about.

“My staff could see how the quality of the produce was better," she said. "They are fresher, brighter products, and kids tend to take them more. Yes, it does take more time to prepare fresh produce, but it’s worth it. We are here to serve our kids.” 

Just a couple miles from Kessel’s kitchen, is Mason County's Michigan State University Extension office, one of a handful of statewide organizations able to support the success of grantees like Mason County Eastern.

With 100% of their students eligible for free or reduced school meals, Mason County Eastern Elementary receives nutrition education and outreach delivered by MSU Extension. For the last several years, MSU Extension community nutrition instructor Kendra Gibson has collaborated with teachers to provide classroom nutrition education at Mason County Eastern Elementary through the SNAP-Ed program. Intentionally partnering with leaders like Kessel enables Gibson to support farm to school activities like initiating regular monthly taste tests aimed at building excitement around new, local foods and consuming more fruits and vegetables. 

"Dana wants to support local food," said Gibson. "She values local produce and wanted to try this program. Her staff are really willing to work alongside her and provide new opportunities for students.” 

Aside from tailoring her nutrition education to feature local foods, Gibson has also helped assessed how the school is supporting healthy school food culture currently, and where there may be room for growth. Additionally, she has helped to promote the local food offerings via school newsletter, social media and local news. 

“I think it’s important to educate and build awareness about what we grow here and how it contributes to healthy food access for kids," Gibson said. "I enjoy helping to make the connection for kids between their food and farms in Michigan."

School meals play an important role in student health, well-being and academic success. With school breakfast and lunch contributing up to half of students’ daily energy intake for some, Kessel and her team play an important role helping to make sure her students are healthy and ready for academic success.

Kessel intends to apply for a third round of 10 Cents funding and hopes to continue offering new items on her menu, while also considering a monthly featured item to build exposure and enthusiasm for trying new things among students. As for Gibson, she intends to continue growing her partnership with Kessel and her team and building on some of the progress made this most recent school year.

For more information

The next 10 Cents a Meal application is expected to be out by mid-October. For more information on the program, visit the 10 Cents a Meal website and watch this video and others produced by the Michigan Department of Education.

Michigan State University Extension partners with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to provide Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education, or SNAP-Ed. SNAP-Ed focuses on good nutrition, stretching food dollars, living physically active lifestyles and engaging partners to build healthier communities. These efforts help to make healthy the easiest choice where people live, work, shop, play, eat and learn.

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