Okemos’ Blue Mitten Farms Jumps into Capital Region's Farm to School Market

By Nathan Medina

When you consider agricultural land, a suburban community like Okemos isn’t usually the first place that comes to mind. Situated mostly within Meridian Township in Ingham County, Okemos is a neighboring community to East Lansing.

Blue Mitten Farms is a USDA GAP-certified farm situated on 28 acres off of Cornell Road, with a creek running through the property. People have eaten Blue Mitten’s artisan lettuces, microgreens, and herbs in such diverse eating establishments as The Mayfair, in Haslett, an area dive that serves traditional bar fare; and Red Haven, a much-loved farm to table restaurant in Okemos. Most of the farm’s product goes to big Detroit restaurants like Detroit Athletic Club, the Michelin starred chef-helmed Apparatus Room, and others. 

And now, leveraging the economic power of a program called 10 Cents a Meal for Michigan’s Kids & Farms, this urban farm is serving area kids as well.

10 Cents a Meal, administered by the Michigan Department of Education, provides schools, early childhood education centers, and other eligible organizations that serve kids with matching funds to purchase Michigan-grown fruits, vegetables, and dry beans. The state legislature and the governor approved $5 million for the statewide program this year, up from a $275,000 pilot in just west and northwest Michigan in 2016.

It was in 2016 that Blue Mitten launched, with a focus on providing Michigan restaurants and other retail markets with competitively priced greens year round. But schools offer an ideal market to expand into—for the farm, the food service directors, and the children. The gateway to Farm to School is often found in the salad bar. It’s an easy place for school food service directors to serve the many-colored fruits and vegetables they are expected to put onto children’s plates—and the kids are healthier for it.

Reaching Out to Schools

When first considering approaching 10 Cents a Meal school participants, Blue Mitten General Manager & Sales Representative Philip Raymond II checked out the interactive map at tencentsmichigan.org to find grantees in the capital region. The map includes pinpoints of grantee locations throughout the state, student enrollment, and other helpful information.

To aid in his outreach, Phil drafted a flyer to promote Blue Mitten’s product line to schools nearby: “Outstanding shelf life, requires minimal prep,” the flyer said—both qualities that busy school food service directors appreciate. “No bitter varieties,” it said, in a nod to children’s tastes, but “frilly” and “beautiful.”

Phil arranged a sampling meeting with Linda Vainner, Food Service Director at Eaton County’s Waverly and Eaton Rapids school districts first, and was buoyed by her enthusiasm. “Linda responded immediately and loved it!” he said. Next up: The food service director for Williamston and Haslett schools set up a date to come tour the farm. “They would be awesome for us too,” he said before the tour. “And so close for delivery!”

Linda said that she was “very impressed with the farm and the quality of the product.” Phil brought Linda a sample to start.

“I saw the facility about a week after my first order. I wanted to see the facility to make sure it was in compliance with health and safety standards,” Linda said. She was sold on the facility – and also the produce and business relationship.

“I believe we are going through more product,” she said. “The staff loves it – the quality, flavor and freshness. I am very pleased with the partnership with Blue Mitten. Their service is great, along with their product.”

Seeing the Operations First-Hand

Anyone who takes a Blue Mitten tour will first see a field with piles of farm materials like wood chips, a woods beyond, a couple of farm dogs scampering in the grass, and then multiple rows of greenhouse structures lined up one by one. Inside, it’s greenery and technology.

Blue Mitten’s main 14,000 square-foot greenhouse space has been standing since the 1980s, having formerly served as an area garden center. The owners expanded, adding three greenhouses with a total of 8,000 square feet. The owners have since updated the once-mothballed property with hydroponic systems, reverse osmosis water filtration, a nutrient auto-dosing unit, new shade cloth, supplemental lighting, and automated controllers. The farm’s main focus is a mixed blend of hydroponically grown lettuce and a variety of microgreens, grown indoors year round. Blue Mitten also has outdoor plots where they grow seasonal offerings like squash, zucchini, heirloom tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, and standard and specialty peppers. 

That USDA GAP-certification? It means Good Agricultural Practices.

And the food service director for Ingham County’s Williamston and Haslett schools, Jim Davis, was impressed with the attention to good practices. “Being able to see the greenhouses helped me decide whether or not to use them,” he said. 

Photo to the left: Scott Zomerlei, Garden Planner/Engineer, left, and Phil Raymond II, right, General Manager/Sales Representative, Blue Mitten Farms.

“The farm was very clean and organized with helpful explanations of how they grow and the systems being used to recycle the water, which makes everything eco-friendly—and we are all about sustainability. I am super excited to use the Blue Mitten,” Davis added.

The personal aspect of knowing where your food is coming from, the processes by which it was handled—and by whom—is another aspect of farm to school that can add peace of mind.

“A major concern in the last few years has been the recall of lettuce coming from the Southwest due to harmful bacteria,” Phill noted.  “Our processes and attention to cleanliness and (cold) packing techniques ensure our product is always fresh, safe, and boasts an incredible shelf life.” 

Room for Growth
There are now 10 schools and early childhood centers in the Lansing region that are purchasing Michigan-grown food with 10 Cents a Meal, up from just three participants in the region the previous year. 

Phil hopes to see the program grow even more: “The increase in cases per week the schools add will be another helpful step in our farm's expansion, exposure, and staying power in the community,” he said.

Not only does 10 Cents a Meal invest in Michigan’s important agricultural economy and strengthen our state’s food system, it also incentivizes keeping federal school lunch dollars in the state, doubling the state’s investment in the program. That’s because schools typically use federal school lunch dollars for their required match.

The economic ripple effect of 10 Cents a Meal enhances and strengthens our local food economy at every step of the process, from planting, to harvesting, distributing, to finally ending up on a child's plate. This is all the more important as we have seen national supply chains falter amidst the effects of the COVID pandemic and as fuel prices rise. 

“Being a farm start-up going head on with COVID has pushed us to restructure our products, consumer base, and distribution methods multiple times in the last five years,” Phil notes. “So we're always grateful to work with new markets, develop new products, and navigate all the different means of distribution while we learn to grow our business with the ever-changing food systems.”

More than Money

There’s something else that’s also important to Phil.

“We relish the opportunity to provide the youth and educators in our own community with fresh, healthy, safely and sustainably grown veggies,” he said. “We all know that a healthy diet is very important to energy levels, focus, and improved mental health, so being able to contribute to that in the education setting is a great feeling!” 

That’s the type of win-win approach that state legislators have praised.

“10 Cents a Meal for Michigan’s Kids & Farms provides students an opportunity to improve their nutrition while also investing in local agriculture,” said State Representative Kara Hope, D-Holt. “This program benefits the entire community and I look forward to seeing the positive impact it will have in the Greater Lansing area.”

Nathan Medina is a policy specialist at Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, which is the communications and outreach partner for the 10 Cents a Meal for Michigan’s Kids & Farms program administered by the Michigan Department of Education. Reach him at [email protected]

Learn more about the program at www.tencentsmichigan.org

Photos by Blue Mitten Farms & Nathan Medina

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