Photo by Jeffrey S. Otto/Farm Flavor Media

Michigan farms of all sizes are benefitting from farm to institution programs, which help food service buyers source and promote Michigan-grown food. That means Michigan residents of all ages are eating more food grown in the state, from grains and beans to fresh fruits and vegetables to meat and dairy.

Loyal Customers

Mike Gavin heard schools were becoming more interested in Michigan produce in 2010, when he began working full time at his family’s orchards in Coopersville.

“We started selling to one or two schools, and our fruit is now in 20 to 30 school districts, with one or two added each year,” he says.

Mike Gavin, Gavin Orchards. Photo courtesy of Michigan Department of Agriculture

Michigan has more than 11,000 institutions: K-12 schools, early childhood programs, hospitals and health care systems, long-term care facilities, colleges and universities, and other entities with a food service program. Many place high value on sourcing Michigan farm products.

“Institutional buyers tend to be very loyal if the farmer is supplying products that are the right quality, are on time and available at a good price, making institutions a steady and stable market for farmers,” says Colleen Matts, Farm to Institution specialist, Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems (CRFS).

Starting at School

Some of the earliest efforts to guide Michigan farm products into institutions started in schools.

“Farm-to-school programs work with schools to not only increase food purchases from Michigan, but also to help students understand where the food they are eating comes from and how it’s produced,” Matts says.

Gavin Orchards cooperated with local schools and MSU Extension to help stoke student interest through in-school taste testing events.

“We introduced students to a mix of apple varieties – Galas, Fujis, Golden Delicious, Jonamac – all with consistent quality,” Gavin says.

Gavin Orchards. Photo courtesy of Michigan Department of Agriculture

The new mix was a hit. “A lot of the schools started seeing apple consumption increase by two to three times,” he says.

Orchards and dairy farms provide milk and fruit, both fresh and frozen, to school food service. Smaller farms benefit, too.

“We saw an in-home daycare provider use a small grant to purchase a blender to make smoothies from fruits and vegetables the children picked out at the local farmers market,” Matts says.

Sending fresh fruit to school districts has been a good fit for Gavin Orchards, a mid-size orchard that wholesales most of its apples, peaches and nectarines.

“Schools want a slightly smaller apple than our retail customers, and that helps us move more sizes of fruit,” Gavin says. “But the most favorable outcome we see is an increase in the kids’ fresh fruit consumption.”

Gavin Orchards. Photo courtesy of Michigan Department of Agriculture

Michigan Food, Fresh or Frozen

Delivering farm products in forms institutions prefer can be a challenge. Food service buyers often require diced potatoes and onions or frozen fruit.

“Early childhood centers also value lightly processed foods, like apple slices and carrot sticks,” Matts says.

Large-scale Michigan food processors offer many established options for institutional buyers, from milk to frozen blueberries. There is also opportunity for smaller firms.

“The capacity of Southwest Michigan’s small-scale farms is huge,” says Rachel Bair, Kalamazoo Valley Community College director for Sustainable and Innovative Food Systems.

Photo courtesy of Michigan Farm to Institution Network.

ValleyHUB, a food hub at Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s Bronson Healthy Living Campus, has the capacity to lightly process and preserve local produce. That can benefit farms – and help reduce food waste, Bair says.

“One of our growers produces high-quality yellow Spanish onions in larger quantities,” she says.

The farm, which lacks winter storage facilities, often had onions remaining at the end of the season.

“We work with this grower to purchase larger amounts of the remaining onions before they freeze and become unsalable,” says Randall Davis, ValleyHUB manager. “We then store and process the onions through the colder months and sell them to our institutional partner, Bronson Hospital.”

The food hub also buys, sorts and groups produce from area farms, filling orders for food service buyers who lack the time to negotiate with many producers. “We manage the ordering process, aggregate food from many farms and make one easy, organized delivery,” Bair says. It is just another example of the many ways more Michigan-grown food is landing in the kitchens of institutions across the state.

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