Faces of the Network Podcast #1: Megan McManus, Farm to Institution Fellow, Center for Regional Food Systems

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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. This podcast is brought to you by the Michigan Farm to Institution Network. In this first episode, we meet Megan McManus, Farm to Institution Fellow at the Center for Regional Food Systems.

June 25, 2022

Megan McManus smiles in front of a wooded background

“The power of networking is so crucial to making progress on a larger scale.” Megan McManus


Zaire Parrotte: Welcome to the first episode of Faces of the Network. This series is brought to you by the Michigan Farm to Institution Network, 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 Megan McManus, 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?

Megan gives a Cover Crop Demo
Photo Credit: Megan McManus

Megan McManus: Formally, [my role] centers around collaboration with partners around the state to support the outreach and research for farm to institution projects at the Center for Regional Food Systems. I work with several different projects, such as the Michigan Farm to Institution Network and the Anchor Innovations project, where I work with health systems. The biggest project I'm involved with is 10 Cents a Meal, where I help conduct evaluations to understand the impact of the Ten Cents Program. We do that through conducting surveys with food service directors and then reporting on those results. I love looking at the data we've collected and turning it into something that's really meaningful and actually helpful to our different stakeholders. I started with the Center in August, but I do have a couple of years of previous experience working with beginning and small-scale farmers in the Kansas City region. I helped with a beginning farmer apprenticeship program and then I also worked on a project that helped farmers scale up and sell to wholesale markets.

Zaire Parrotte: Awesome! That's a lot of experience, that's really cool!

What drew you to this work?

Megan McManus: I love this question because I love asking people in this realm of work what drew them, because you get such different and interesting answers. For me, I was really fortunate to grow up in a household that really placed a lot of value on food. We had a huge garden throughout my childhood in Southern California. We got to grow year-round, and food just brought our family together. Let me tell you, Pacific Islanders know how to potluck! I have so many amazing memories with my family just eating all this different food with all of these people, and it was just such an amazing time! I went to school as a pre-med major because I love science, and I was really passionate about health. But as I was working in healthcare, I saw this really crucial component of health, which was food, missing from how we took care of people. That really opened up my eyes to the social aspect of health and from there I learned about how policies, equity and the entire food system plays a role in how we live and the strength and health of our communities.

Zaire Parrotte: Wow! I want to go to California right now! You’ve mentioned a lot about California and your experience in California.

What is something unique you've noticed about Michigan?

Megan McManus: There’s so many things, I have to think about this. I think the most interesting thing to me would be the diversity of Michigan's geography. I think that's one of the most interesting characteristics of this state. It's amazing to me how diverse the landscape ranges in the region and then seeing how that plays a role in shaping all the communities across the state. Coming from California, it's really cool to see a state like Michigan that has the climate it does, and it can grow all these diverse kinds of crops. It's really cool!

Zaire Parrotte: That is something that I also noticed when I first moved to Michigan and started working in food system work. I always hear these statistics like “Michigan has the 2nd most diverse agricultural setting... other than California”. When I think of Michigan, I don't think about so much diversity in agriculture. I didn't realize we were so rich in that component. I've always just thought about Detroit and then that's it. It's something that's really cool and that most people, especially outside of Michigan, wouldn't think. The fact that there's so much work in networking and organizations rooted in changing food systems in Michigan is pretty impressive!

Aquaponic Farm Tour
Photo Credit: Megan McManus

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

Megan McManus: Well, I love being part of such a collaborative and progressive food system in Michigan. It's amazing how interconnected all these different organizations are here: whether it's folks from government or state agency, non-profits, universities, and the Center. It’s so great with networking and connecting people so that we could accomplish our goals in the best way we can [and] with a bunch of different voices playing a part in our work. I'm a big data nerd, so getting to see how different organizations across the country and the state are tracking their farm to institution metrics is exciting and interesting to me. I think that's how we can collectively [and] constantly improve what we're doing so it can benefit people.

What is most challenging to you so far about working or collaborating with partners for farm to institution work?

Megan McManus: I think the most challenging thing - and this is going to be similar for every kind of person working right now - is just trying to collaborate with partners during the pandemic. I think about how much better it would be if farmers and food producers were able to connect with suppliers and institutions face-to-face and just how hard would it be to build those relationships over virtual platforms, on top of already being busy with their day-to-day business in a pandemic format. The same goes with schools and our health systems, they're so busy with all their own important and crucial work going on right now that it can put some farm to institution work on pause while they're focusing on these pressing issues.

In your role, what major lesson have you learned so far about partners working together to support farm to institution projects?

Megan McManus: The power of networking is so crucial to making progress on a larger scale. It's amazing what can happen when different organizations can come together and share their expertise, skills, knowledge, and experience to help advance a project's work.

Zaire Parrotte: The power of networking! For MFIN, right before the pandemic happened, in November 2019 we had an in person huge Network Gathering. It was like a conference; there were so many people from all over the state and even different parts of the country that were part of MFIN coming together to talk about farm to school and farm to institution work. It was just a really cool experience. I had just started working there in October, so I wasn't there for a month, but I got to see with my own eyes how big this [movement] is. Networking is very important and that's why we have a Michigan Farm to Institution Network.

Can you share a memorable moment from a farm to institution project or program that you either worked or collaborated on?

Megan McManus: I really loved this one Michigan Farm to Institution Network meeting that I got to participate pretty early on when I first started. I just started purely listening to conversations, learning from others and what's going on in Michigan. There was a point towards the end of this meeting where members from all these different sectors started brainstorming about projects and ideas that the network could do in the future. As they started their discussion, you could feel the energy start to build and the enthusiasm grow as all these ideas were bouncing off one another and building on top of each other. It was just a really exciting and encouraging moment to see and be a part of and to listen to. I loved that connection and that collaboration that was going on in those moments.

Zaire Parrotte: That's really cool! You'll definitely notice as you spend more time with MFIN and CRFS that most people working together are comfortable with each other. There's a healthy work culture within our work. We're not just robots sitting at a computer. We are human, have lives and tell jokes. I think that's the human side and component that makes our work and network stronger. I hope you definitely get to experience more of that. I'm very lucky to be part of such a healthy work environment because many people can’t say that.

What is your favorite recipe using local foods? 

Megan McManus: That’s so hard for me, I love all food! This isn't a recipe, but I really love just roasting vegetables. They're just so good simply by themselves! It's the easiest thing to do in the world to just come home and throw some stuff on a sheet pan and put it in the oven. It's so good! I think Brussels sprouts is a veggie that gets a lot of hate, but when it's cooked right, roasted and charred to perfection, it's so good! Just roast your veggies, that's what I'd have to say.

Zaire Parrotte: That's amazing! I love Brussels sprouts, and I never understood why people were hating on them. This is coming from someone who can't really cook that much, so I'm definitely going to take your advice and start roasting some vegetables. I know you've said that it's good by themselves but are there any toppings, seasonings, or sauces you would add?

Megan McManus: Well, I love mixing it up. Of course, you have to have salt and pepper and there's other basics like some garlic. But I love mixing it up with different sauces and dips. It totally changes the way you eat the vegetable too, having a different side. I like to play around with that.

Zaire Parrotte: That's good because I don't think everyone wants to eat a garden salad all the time. That concludes our interview with Megan McManus.

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

Megan McManus: Thank you for having me! I just love being part of Michigan's Farm to Institution scene. There are so many amazing things and people that are working on this food system. It’s been such a great experience being here so far!

Zaire Parrotte: Thank you so much for giving your time and sharing your experience with us!

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