Unique partnerships to promote farm-to-school

Four Muskegon county school districts collaborate on farm-to-school projects.

Four school districts in Muskegon County received a $45,000 USDA Farm-to-School planning grant in 2016. This is a unique collaboration because two of the districts are urban (Muskegon and Muskegon Heights) and two are rural (Whitehall and Montague).  It is also unique because Muskegon and Muskegon Heights school food service is provided through the vendor Chartwells, and managed by Colleen Johnson, while Whitehall and Montague School Foodservice Departments are self operated and managed by Dan Gorman, a school district employee.

“We didn’t really understand what a large project and a unique partnership we had until we attended a meeting of USDA Farm-to-School grantees in Washington D.C,” said Poppy Sias Hernandez. Ms. Hernandez works out of the Muskegon Public Schools’ Superintendent’s Office as Coordinator of Special Projects and serves and the lead author and administrator of the USDA Farm-to-School project in Muskegon County.

“Working with four districts and two different foodservice systems is quite a challenge, but we have the potential to make a large positive impact. We want to inspire as many students and their parents as possible to discover the variety of healthy local foods available in our community, ” said Sias Hernandez.

To date, all four districts have implemented taste tests featuring local food items. The Muskegon Area Career and Tech Center’s culinary students are helping with recipe development, with support from their instructor, Chef Elissa Penczar. Some of their successes were Michigan potato taquitos, Michigan pumpkin muffins, and Michigan winter squash nachos.

The Muskegon County Farm-to-School grant project was featured in the December 20, 2016 e-newsletter from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service for their November learning journey to Goodwill Industry’s Farm to Freezer facility in Traverse City. This learning journey included youth participants, food service staff members, and community representatives. The article also highlighted the fact that all four districts received a 10 Cents a Meal grant from the State of Michigan for the purchase of Michigan fruits and vegetables for school meal programs.

Ms. Sias Hernandez reports that an implementation grant application was submitted this past December so the project can continue after the planning phase, which is schedule to end in June of 2017. “We are optimistic about our work moving forward as this planning grant enabled us to strengthen key strategic relationships in our community food systems. We learned, we grew and now we are ready to “do,” said Sias Hernandez.

For more information about farm-to-school programs in Michigan, visit this link or contact a Michigan State University Community Food Systems Educator near you. 

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