Starting a farm to school project is no small undertaking, just ask our partners in the Western U.P. who are working hard to make local and healthy food more accessible in schools. With an abundant local food system, the Western U.P. Planning and Development Region and community partners in the Western U.P. saw that there was a gap between what is being served in schools and what is being grown there. More than that, everyone in the community stands to benefit from farm to school. Farm to school programs foster resilient and sustainable communities all while nourishing students with delicious local food.
In 2021, the opportunity to pursue a regional farm to school project in the Western UP came knocking with a grant from Michigan Health Endowment Fund and several partner organizations were ready to answer. Since then, we’ve seen a community of dedicated farmers and food service directors team up to break down barriers and bring students fresh local food.
In less than two years, The Western UP Farm to School project has accomplished a considerable amount. Starting on the farm side of things, as the Western U.P. Local Food Coordinator, I helped to build connections with farmers interested in selling to schools. During the spring, farmers participated in produce safety visits from the Marquette County Conservation District to assess potential food safety risks and outline a food safety plan. In the following months, farms were awarded mini grants to purchase food safety equipment to mitigate any potential risks. There are over 10 farms in Baraga County, Gogebic County, Houghton County, and Keweenaw County committed to selling to schools in the next two years.
On the school side of things, Taste the Local Difference and partners, such as Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, worked together to provide webinars and technical assistance for food service directors applying to 10 Cents a Meal. Additionally, former Local Food Coordinator Alex Palzewicz worked with food service directors to assess the challenges in selling to schools. Taking feedback from food service directors, project partners are collaborating to create a regional farm to school directory making it easier to find local farmers committed to selling to schools.
Looking forward, community partners are looking to solidify connections between farmers and schools and continue to offer support. This fall, our partners at Michigan Technological University will start a photovoice project led by sociologist Dr. Angie Carter. This project will encourage participants to share their knowledge and experience through photos and descriptions, creating viable research and a lasting creative reflection of the unique Farm to School experience in the Western U.P. It’s safe to say farm to school initiatives are making headway in the Western U.P. and our partners are working hard to make sure that these changes are sustainable for the long term.
You can learn more about the Western U.P. Farm to School Project on the Western U.P. Food Systems Collaborative website.
Madelina DiLisi is the Western UP Farm to School Grant Coordinator and current Masters student at Michigan Tech University.