Employment Blooms with Farm to School

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Volume 5, Issue 6, February 20, 2019

The Dirt - New and Notes from FNS's Office of Community Food Systems
A delivery truck is parked in front of the Michigan Farm to Freezer warehouse.

Michigan Farm to Freezer Grows Local Employment

In 2014, Mark Coe went from managing a 1,400-acre Michigan fruit and vegetable farm to joining a collaborative project with his partner and former school lunch manager, Brandon Seng. Michigan Farm to Freezer is a community-based, flash freezing processor of Michigan-grown produce. From the beginning, Coe and Seng collaborated with school districts, offering local produce for their meal programs. Today, the program provides flash-frozen fruits and vegetables to roughly 90 schools statewide and it is rapidly growing.

Michigan Farm to Freezer grew quickly thanks, in part, to a state-funded pilot program in 2016. “10 Cents a Meal for School Kids and Farms” provides matching funds for participating schools serving Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables.  Coe says this pilot program incentivized schools to purchase local products. This was very fortunate, as they were already sourcing exclusively Michigan-grown products for sale and distribution well beyond the State’s typical growing season.  “We did this because we thought it was the right thing to do, initially,” says Coe, “and now it has turned into a great business decision as we’re getting distributed throughout the State.”

Michigan Farm to Freezer started as a workforce development program for low- and under-skilled individuals. Operating out of a Goodwill Industries incubator facility in Travers City, the program provided on-the-job training and placement in food processing and food preparation careers. The training included a skills and interest assessment and placed participants in various sectors of the food industry. 

Michigan Farm to Freezer continues to work with individuals with employment barriers, but instead of helping trainees find outside jobs, they now retain trainees as their own staff.  This is mostly out of necessity, as the demand for flash-frozen fruits and vegetables has grown to the point where this is the core business.  However, they still provide opportunities to those who struggle to find inroads to a career, with roughly 80 percent of their full- and part-time workforce having been incarcerated at some point in their lives.

As demand has grown, Michigan Farm to Freezer has outgrown its original Traverse City location and has moved into a much larger facility in Detroit, Michigan.  They are now providing locally grown products to schools, grocery stores, and kitchens throughout the State while looking forward to what the future has in store.  

Bringing the Farm to Summer

Even as much of the country remains bundled and indoors, Summer Meal Sponsors are busy preparing for a healthy and active 2019. Sponsors are finding new site locations, planning engaging activities, and growing relationships to ensure children have access to fresh, local foods when school is out. Recently, USDA’s Western Regional Office awarded outstanding 2018 sponsors with their Summer Sunshine Awards. Keep reading to learn how Washington’s Wallingford Boys and Girls Club and California’s Pittsburg Unified School District brought local foods to their summer programs.

A participant of the Wallingford Boys and Girls Club smiles with his lunch! He is eating local Washington blueberries.

Wallingford Boys and Girls Club of Washington State

Wallingford Boys and Girls Club partnered with the City of Seattle Farm to Table initiative to procure local fruits and vegetables from a wholesaler in their county. Their smart menu planning and flexibility allowed them to offer a diverse variety of fresh, local foods. For instance, the local carrots that arrived fresh from the farm in bunches with top greens required additional staff time to process into the sticks their kids know and love. Instead of reverting to their conventional pre-cut carrot sticks, Wallingford included other less labor intense products, such as cherry tomatoes, to balance out the staff time. Serving local foods has kept the Wallingford Boys and Girls Club program fun for staff and participants alike.

Pittsburg Unified School District, California

Last summer, Pittsburg Unified School District’s summer program showcased their twelve school gardens by serving garden-grown vegetables, such as squash and tomatoes, in their summer meals. Parents also had the opportunity to shop at the school gardens at bi-monthly “Garden Markets”. Additionally, the district partnered with the local food bank to serve even more produce. Through partnerships and the utilization of their school gardens, Pittsburg Unified was able to offer children vibrant and nutritious meals all summer long.  

Looking to include Farm to Summer initiatives in your 2019 program? Visit USDA’s Farm to Summer webpage for more resources.

Cover of the American Indian Traditional Foodsin USDA School Meals Program toolkit

New Resource Alert!

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction recently released American Indian Traditional Foods in USDA School Meals Programs: A Wisconsin Farm to School Toolkit, available electronically on their Farm to School Traditional Foods webpage. The toolkit and webpage highlight traditional foods that are common in Wisconsin, such as berries, bison, fish, venison, and more! This resource was made possible, in part, through USDA Farm to School grant funding.

Grant Announcement!

First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is now accepting proposals for its Native Youth and Culture Fund (NYCF) for projects that focus on youth and incorporate culture and tradition to address social issues in Native communities. First Nations expects to award approximately 20 grants between $5,000 and $19,500 each for projects of no longer than one year in length.