10 Cents a Meal Expands, and So Does Business

By Diane Connors, senior policy specialist at the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities   

Article originally posted by Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities.

Back to school sales usually involved backpacks, notebooks, and calculators. Now, add apples, Brussels sprouts, and dry red beans to the back-to-school market, with truckloads of credit being given to an innovative state program called 10 Cents a Meal for Michigan's Kids & Farms, a matching grant program for schools to buy and serve Michigan-grown fruits, vegetables, and dry beans in lunches for Michigan kids.

The Michigan legislature just expanded the program for a third year, and agricultural business is expanding too.

“When the school year started, sales increased in the fall,’ said Mark Coe, reflecting on the impact of the 10 Cents a Meal program. He’s managing partner of Michigan Farm to Freezer, which purchases and freezes produce from at least 30 Michigan farms for sale to retail and institutional markets. That school-start increase in business has been the same for each of the last two years when the state program has been in existence, Coe said. And when school lets out for winter holidays, there’s a downturn that doesn’t pick back up until school starts again.

“10 Cents is definitely noticeable in our business,” he said in a report about the pilot program from the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) written for the legislature.

The program also has been nationally recognized at conferences, and Michigan Farm Bureau praises it as a model for other states.

“Michigan Farm Bureau applauds the efforts of all the hard-working members of the project team behind the success of the 10 Cents a Meal program,” said spokesman Kevin Robson, Michigan Farm Bureau Horticulture and Industry Relations Specialist. “This program provides yet another opportunity for our state’s farmers to move additional produce inventory at the local level, providing a healthy, great tasting option to their school lunch programs. We support the future endeavors of the program, and encourage the project team to continue to build on their success and enhance the effectiveness of the program, to remain a paramount program example for other states to follow.”

10 Cents has come a long way since Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities proposed the pilot program to Traverse City area schools in 2012, then incubated it, nurtured it, and educated legislators. The school lunch program is now integrated into the operations of the Michigan Department of Education, which reviews prospective grantees each year and streamlined the program within its existing electronic grant and reimbursement systems.

For fiscal year 2019, the legislature increased the budget, the number of schools eligible, and, ultimately, the number of farmers selling produce to schools. Schools in 43 of Michigan’s 83 counties now are eligible to apply for the grants, which provide up to 10 cents a meal in match funding for schools to purchase Michigan-grown produce.

Consider this:

In the school year just ended, the 32 grant-winning districts purchased 80 different fruits, vegetables, and beans grown by 112 farms located in 34 counties.

Of those 80 products, 65 were cited by food service directors as something they’d tried with their children for the first time. Michigan’s diverse agricultural products are paying off—kids love the variety of flavors.

Farmers also reported greater business collaboration because of the 10 Cents program. In fact, 19 other businesses, such as food hubs, distributors, and processors, also reaped business thanks to the program.

“We sold 10,000 pounds through Leelanau Fruit to Farm to Freezer for schools,” said Steve Bardenhagen, of Leelanau County’s 184-acre Bardenhagen Berries farm, in the MDE report. “It is just a great deal all around.”

Tantre Farms, a 160-acre diverse vegetable, fruit and livestock farm in Washtenaw County, made it into schools through the distribution food hub Cherry Capital Foods, which is based in Traverse City. “I am very pleased that Cherry Capital Foods is getting us into the schools,” Tantre farmer Richard Endres said in the MDE report. “It is a great resource, providing us boxes and scheduling pick-ups.”

Food service directors say the program is making a difference for them, too, often providing them with better quality products and a greater variety of flavors. “It really gives us a sense of pride to offer the kids such great food,” one food service director said in a monthly survey conducted by the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems on behalf of MDE.

“We are noticing a lot less food waste on the days we serve local produce,” said another.

A teacher who includes taste tests in her classroom lessons to support her food service director’s efforts, said for the MDE report: “Some students had thirds! I was excited to be able to share that I used to live next to the farm. This connection made my kids more excited to try the parsnips.”

Mike Gavin of Gavin Orchards, a 220-acre, third generation farm near Grand Rapids, loves to hear stories like that. “Farm to school is consistent business with consistent pricing,” he said for the MDE report to the legislature, adding: “When I started with schools I was told student consumption had doubled and tripled in apples. It’s nice to hear you are making a difference.”

Indeed. The expansion of 10 Cents a Meal is good for kids and the economy.

(Schools in program-eligible counties are now located in Michigan Prosperity Regions 2, 4, 6, 8, and 9. Grantees should be announced soon; and there should be increased interest generally among schools in these regions to consider farm-to-school purchasing. As a result, now is a good time for farmers and related businesses to contact school food service directors about products they could sell for school breakfasts and lunches.)

Diane Conners is senior policy specialist at Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, based in Traverse City. She helped create the Traverse City area’s 10 Cents a Meal pilot project, which became the model for the state program and was inspired by one of the recommendations of the Michigan Good Food Charter.