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New network advances locally grown food

April 12, 2014
By Diane Conners, Traverse City Record-Eagle

TRAVERSE CITY — A new Michigan Farm to Institution Network is helping schools, hospitals, day care centers, senior living and other institutions ramp up their purchases of locally grown food.

These are the places where our children eat up to two meals a day; where our elders are served meals when it’s difficult or impossible to cook alone; where college students keep their brains working while rushing to class; and where patients and their loved ones get nourishment for healing. They feed so many people that they offer a huge opportunity as strong new markets for Michigan farms. Michigan schools, for example, serve 140 million lunches each year and hospitals serve patients about 15 million meals annually.

The network will provide these institutions with resources to make sure as much food as possible is sourced locally, while helping farmers and other local food businesses tap into these important markets. It all supports the Michigan Good Food Charter’s goal that by 2020 state institutions will source 20 percent of their food products from Michigan growers, producers and processors. One of the network’s biggest projects is a marketing and support campaign called Cultivate Michigan, which asks institutions to commit or re-commit to the 20 percent by 2020 goal.

Traverse City Area Public Schools in Grand Traverse County and Kaleva Area Norman Dickson Schools in Manistee County are among the first to sign on. They will receive marketing materials, recipes, procurement connections and other resources for four products a year along with an online “dashboard” to chart their progress in local food buying.

Cultivate Michigan resources are based on lessons learned from a pilot apple project in 2010 between the nonprofit Ecology Center — which coordinates the network with the MSU Center for Regional Food Solutions — and nine Michigan hospitals and health systems. Prior to the campaign, these hospitals in 2008-09 spent less than $300 to purchase only 1,200 Michigan apples. In 2010, they spent nearly $4,000 on 30,000 apples. Apples are among the four Michigan products that will be featured in the campaign this year, along with asparagus, blueberries and tomatoes.

Cherry Capital Foods is a member of the network’s eight-member advisory committee. The launch also featured one of the Michigan Land Use Institute’s FoodCorps service members to demonstrate how educational activities with students introduces them to good food while building local markets. I’ve been thrilled to hear stories from MLUI’s FoodCorps service members about children's reactions to local foods.

"It was so good my taste buds went to taste town!" one first grader exclaimed about locally grown carrot sticks featured in the cafeteria and classroom.

Learn more about the Michigan Farm to Institution Network and how to join at and about Cultivate Michigan at

Diane Conners is a senior policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute. She directs MLUI’s farm to school program and is a member of the Michigan Farm to Institution Network.