Faces of the Network Podcast #3: Mariel Borgman, Community Food Systems Educator, MSU Extension

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Hosted by Farm to Institution Data Manager Zaire Parrotte, the Faces of the Network Podcast is a space to hear stories from Michigan champions, partners, and supporters who are leading the way in supplying, sourcing, and serving Michigan food, from the farm to the institution. In this third episode, we meet Mariel Borgman, Community Food Systems Educator for Michigan State University Extension.

June 27, 2022

Portrait of Mariel Borgman

"This [work] is really based on relationships. It's based on building trust and knowing how to best communicate with people.” Mariel Borgman


Zaire Parrotte: Welcome to the third episode of Faces of the Network. This series is brought to you by the Michigan Farm to Institution Network (MFIN), which is coordinated by the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems and MSU Extension. My name is Zaire Parrotte, and I am the Farm to Institution Data Manager.

In this series, we will hear stories from Michigan champions, partners, and supporters who are leading the way in supplying, sourcing, and serving Michigan food, from the farm to the institution. In this episode, we will get to learn about Mariel Borgman. She is part of the MFIN Management Team. I asked her a few questions and asked at the end if she had any final thoughts of her own.

What is your role in farm to institution work? How long have you been doing this work?

Mariel Borgman: I'm a Community Food Systems Educator with Michigan State University Extension. I work in the southwest part of the state primarily, but I do some statewide work with the [Michigan] Farm to Institution Network (MFIN). I've been working on farm to institution through MFIN back since 2015, when I first started with MSU Extension. I've been on the management team now for about three years.

Zaire Parrotte: That’s awesome! Was this your first job in food systems work, or what did you do before?

Mariel Borgman: Kind of. When I was in grad school, I started to work a little bit of farm to institution, though I didn't really know that's what I was doing at the time. There wasn't a word for it that I had in my vocabulary. I went to the University of Michigan for grad school, and I did a lot of work with the campus farm. I got to know Keith Soster during that time because we were doing work to try to source more food from the campus farm and gardens into the cafeteria. I really was doing it since probably 2012 but didn't really know that was where I was heading in my career necessarily. But before that, I worked in marketing and manufacturing, so I was in a completely different field before I went back to school.

Zaire Parrotte: That's awesome!

What is most exciting to you about your farm to institution work?

Mariel Borgman: I think the most exciting thing is how many different opportunities there are at different levels, different points of entry for both sides: both for the institutions and for the farms. The institutions have a lot of different options for sourcing local food, and they can really figure out what is the best way - or best ways - to engage with farm to institution. Also on the other side, farms of all scales can participate. It's about finding the right match, finding the right farm for the institution, or working through another supplier that can help with some of those logistics and distribution and marketing pieces. Lately, I am also super geeked about 10 Cents a Meal and all of the opportunities that involves [opening] up more participation for schools and ECEs (early care and education) that are working on super limited budgets.

Wagon Ride during CM Cherry Tour
Photo Credit: Mariel Borgman

Zaire Parrotte: That's good! You mentioned a few things - having the right match and limited funds.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced when providing produce safety education for growers?

Mariel Borgman: Along the lines of the right match, there's no one standard for producing safety verification that all buyers will use. That could be really frustrating to the farm, especially if they have different buyers that are asking for different things or the buyer doesn't really know what they need or know what they're asking for. The farm is not really sure where to go from there. To give examples of that, a lot of times a buyer will ask for GAP certification. But are they aware that it really involves a lot of work on the farm to put together a produce safety plan, record keeping, monitoring steps, keeping extensive records, having a yearly audit, and paying a significant fee? They don't really get any additional price advantages for having that at all, so that's essentially a cost of doing business. It can be pretty significant for a small farm.

Also, there's a lot of different elements of the audit - scopes are what they're called. Some farms might just be doing one scope versus some farms doing four scopes. There's not really a standard when someone says they need GAP certification. Do they need the whole thing? Do they need one part of it? A lot of times the buyer doesn't necessarily know what they need, they just want to buy safe produce. There's definitely an educational opportunity to share some of the different options that buyers have for working with farms on produce safety. A lot of the times buyers don't realize that there are free programs in Michigan as well to get food safety verification that might be a better fit for small farms or farms that are just starting out with food safety. They are able to verify their food safety practices, they're able to have a trained technician come out to their farm and help them and actually go through an educational process at the same time. Just trying to figure out, again, that best match for what a farm needs to provide to verify that they're producing safe produce.

Zaire Parrotte: I think that's really interesting because something that I've noticed since working with MFIN is there were some people that were concerned about how we have all of these regulations, recommendations, and wants for food safety, but how they're applied will have different effects depending on the size of the farm. I think that's a really interesting perspective that you have. I think there's a lot of need for education on both sides on how we can handle safety. Like you said, food safety is not a one-size-fits-all thing. Thank you for saying all that!

What is one step you recommend people take if they want to succeed in farm to institution work?

Mariel Borgman: I think the one step I recommend is to start small and start with small successes and build up from there. As I've heard stories of people that have been really successful in farm to institution work (that are now put on a pedestal as the highlight of the movement) they started small. They just bought something, they tried it out, it was successful, and they went from there. You don't have to completely overhaul your menu overnight, that's pretty much impossible to do. Identify one item that you could try to source locally., And then if that works out, use what you’ve learned from there and then keep going forward. It takes years, it is not going to be all at once. In my mind, I think that’s one reason why the Michigan Apple Crunch has been so significant in our farm to institution efforts - because it offers that opportunity for an institution to really easily take that first step to farm to institution. Source one local thing, have a celebration around it, get people really excited, and that really opens the door to many more opportunities. You have already practiced sourcing something local, now you have that skill set and you can continue to build and grow from there.

Zaire Parrotte: That's great because something that I've heard was “It all starts with an apple.”

Mariel Borgman: Yes! We kind of joke about that but it really is true, it is a point of entry.

Zaire Parrotte: Yeah, I think that's very important because when we think of farm to institution, we think of huge institutions like big schools, universities, and hospitals and we all want to feed everybody in our institution. But like you said, we can't start off super big because then that will add a lot more stress and then you may not even want to continue because of the amount of pressure we put on ourselves. Yes, it starts with an apple!

In your work, what one important lesson have you learned about farm to institution value chains?

Mariel Borgman: One thing is that they're complex, but also, they're changing, and, in some respects, we are creating them as we go. Within the last 10-15 years in Michigan, we have seen the emergence of food hubs in a really big way as becoming part of the farm to institution value chain. We're working together in partnership with the institutions, with the farms, with the food hubs, with the distributors, with everybody in this value chain. I think what we're learning is that transparency of practices, where things are coming from, communication and relationships are really critical. A lot of this [work] is really based on relationships. It's based on building trust and knowing how to best communicate with people. Whether you're on the buying side, or the supplying side, or the distribution side, it's figuring out how to establish these relationships-based transactions. It’s not just buying and selling - it's all of these human components that go into it as well.

Can you share a memorable moment from a farm to institution project that you’ve worked on?

Mariel Borgman: I have so many fun memories associated with our Making Michigan Recipes Work culinary training that we did back in 2016 or 2017. We traveled around the state and did a number of trainings for school nutrition staff. This actually relates back to supply chains. As we know in Michigan, we have a lot of seasonal produce. Sometimes when you're trying to schedule trainings, the best time to go somewhere is not necessarily when the particular thing you need is in season. Our Upper Peninsula training didn’t really align with melon harvesting season, but we needed to teach some skills around processing melons. We needed to purchase them from a local grocery store – this was a small mom and pop type of grocery store. We filled up an entire grocery cart with melons and then we had to take it through the little checkout lady and put them all in the conveyor belt. The clerk’s face was priceless like, “What are these people doing?!” I just think back about that so many times like how ridiculous we looked checking out of this grocery store with this many melons. So that was fun!

Melons in a checkout line at a grocery store
Photo Credit: Mariel Borgman

Zaire Parrotte: My gosh! It's like the personification of those math problems like “Joe bought 38 watermelons and if you took away 5, how many is that?

Mariel Borgman: It was quite a sight. I have some pictures. Maybe that's one of the pictures I can find for you.

Zaire Parrotte: That would be great! Speaking of food...

What is your favorite recipe using local foods?

Zaire Parrotte: This will be our last question.

Mariel Borgman: I am not a recipe person. That means that I have to plan ahead and shop for the ingredients and make sure I have everything on hand, and I am just not that organized. My favorite method, versus a recipe, is roasted vegetables. All you need is olive oil and some spices, and you can roast so many different types of vegetables. It's always delicious, and you don't need to have any kind of preplanning involved. I typically have vegetables around because I grow them, and we have a really nice farm stand nearby that's open all year round. We have always got vegetables around to roast and ready to go. I think they're always amazing. That's also something that works really well in institutional settings too because you can substitute whatever kind of vegetables you have in season and just have roasted vegetables on the menu. It's pretty easy to put together.

Zaire Parrotte: That’s so funny! You are the second person that I interviewed that said roasting vegetables. Okay, the universe is telling me to roast some vegetables!

Mariel Borgman: Roast some vegetables! They're so good!

Zaire Parrotte: I heard how easy it is. Just like I asked that person, I’m going to ask you: I know the seasonings can be simple, but if you wanted to add some flavor to it, what would be your sauce or additional seasonings that would spice things up a bit?

Mariel Borgman: One [preparation] that we have been doing a lot recently is we roast sweet potatoes and then combine it with chipotle peppers and black beans and it's so good! Just the little cans of chipotle peppers usually because we have those around, or you could use fresh or dried if you have them. It’s really yummy, and a really good taco filling if you want to make some veggie tacos.

Zaire Parrotte: That sounds so good! I have some sweet potatoes looking at me right now, so I might just do that. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this Faces of the Network podcast. Before we end it off here,

Do you have any final thoughts you would like to add?

Mariel Borgman: I think I'll just reiterate a point that I made about starting small, but also it takes a while. Don’t give up. You’re going to have successes and you’re going to have some setbacks along the way. Persistence, I think, is really important to this work and keeping the vision in mind - that most people are in this because they really do care about nutrition and local food and supporting local economies. There are many other reasons for it as well. Keeping those reasons in mind and just keeping up with it.

Zaire Parrotte: That's good! I wish I could come up with a phrase like “One apple a day...”

Mariel Borgman: Keep eating your apples!

Zaire Parrotte: Yes! Keep eating your apples! We're going to make a T-shirt out of that or something.

Mariel Borgman: Yes!

Zaire Parrotte: Well, that is the end of this episode. Thank you again for being here with us!

Mariel Borgman: It was a pleasure! Thanks so much, Zaire!


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