By Colleen Matts, MFIN Co-Leader, MSU Center for Regional Food Systems (CRFS).
Photo by Colleen Matts. The “Michigan Farm to School Marketplace” at the SNAM conference, where MFIN and Michigan Farm to School staff and partners enjoyed networking with school food service professionals and each other.
Michigan Farm to School has long had a presence at the School Nutrition Association of Michigan (SNAM) conference through educational sessions, and last year co-hosted a Michigan Apple Crunch Party with Michigan Team Nutrition at the opening reception. At the 2015 conference held in early November, staff and partners at the Michigan Farm to Institution Network (MFIN) and Michigan Farm to School were able to engage more deeply in this opportunity to connect with school food service directors and professionals from across the state.
A highlight of the SNAM conference is always its exhibit show, where food vendors and suppliers share the latest and greatest in school food options. For the first time, Michigan Farm to School was provided with space at this exhibit show to link food service staff interested in local food with assistance, resources and local food vendors in their area. Organized by Colleen Matts and Abby Harper from CRFS, the “Michigan Farm to School Marketplace” displayed the breadth of farm to school support and engagement around the state. Representatives from MFIN, the Michigan Farmers Market Association’s Hoophouses for Health program, MSU Extension, Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, Sprout Urban Farms based in Battle Creek, Allen Market Place in Lansing, and Gavin Orchards in Coopersville were on hand to strike up conversation, help make connections, and even play a little cornhole and specialty crop trivia. Winter squashes of various colors and sizes decked out the space to promote Cultivate Michigan’s fall featured food, and bags of dry beans were given as prizes to help food service directors experiment for the winter promotion. Cherry Capital Foods, a distributor of Michigan foods based in Traverse City and MFIN partner, had an exhibit next door.
In a separate event the previous evening, MFIN staff and partners gathered food distributors and key school food buyers to take part in the first of a series of Farm to Institution Solutions roundtable discussions. Focusing on common challenges of sourcing and selling local foods to institutional markets, this discussion seeded ideas for ways MFIN can help distributors move more Michigan food through the supply chain and provide clear data on those sales to institutions. Strategies discussed were as straightforward as encouraging institutions to specify for a red-skinned apple over a Red Delicious apple and as complex as aggregating and processing Michigan-grown foods. Representatives from distribution companies who attended expressed willingness to follow up on this conversation, whether through individual meetings, additional group discussions, or both. This first meeting was hosted by MFIN staff and members: Colleen Matts of CRFS, Nicki Milgrom of the Ecology Center, Kaitlin Koch of MSU Extension and Christine Quane of Eastern Market (Detroit).
A big thank you goes out to SNAM leadership and conference planners, especially Marla Moss of the Michigan Department of Education, for their support to put MFIN and Michigan Farm to School on the menu of the 2015 conference!