Blueberries in the Lunchroom

West Michigan Farmer and DPS Nutrition Director Share Vision, Values around Good Food

This is one of two articles on the Michigan Good Food Summit, which took place in Lansing last October. It brought together people from across the state who care about creating a healthy food system, equitable food access, a profitable farming community, and a robust agri-food economy. 

Southeast Michigan had noticeable representation at the conference, with urban and rural farmers, educators, food bank personnel, school food service directors, nonprofit leaders, and others talking about the solutions and challenges around providing and promoting Good Food – food that is classified as healthy, sustainably grown, fair, and affordable.

Mode Shift spent some time at the conference, hearing from those who care about Michigan’s food and agriculture economy and who hope to see improvements in public health through better access and education around eating well, buying local. 

In this first article, we’ll share the wisdom of Barbara Norman and Betti Wiggins who participated in a keynote conversation about the challenges and opportunities to growing and buying good food. It was moderated by Christine Quane, the regional food hub director at Eastern Market.

At first glance, Betti Wiggins’ and Barbara Normans’ careers don’t seem to have much overlap.

Wiggins is the executive director of the Office of School Nutrition for Detroit Public Schools (DPS) where she oversees school-based meal operations. DPS is the largest school district in Michigan and the 44th largest school district in the country.

Norman is a third generation blueberry farmer in the rural southwest Michigan county of Van Buren, a grand distance of 180 miles from Detroit. A strong community advocate for locally and regionally grown foods and a user of sustainable agriculture practices, Norman believes in educating and helping others. “It’s not just about growing and selling produce, it’s about giving something back.”

These two women had an opportunity to cross paths a few years back when Wiggins began a mission to boost the nutrition content of DPS school meals while engaging Michigan farmers in the process. 

Oddly, Norman and Wiggins first met in person in San Diego at a conference, and not long after were picking Michigan blueberries together, sharing their passion about creating healthy food systems where no one, including marginalized school children or farmers, is left behind. 

Also, Wiggins wanted to see Norman’s farm and was curious about how Detroit students could benefit from Norman’s amazing blueberries. 

Wiggins, in fact, was raised on a farm in southern Michigan, so she “gets” farming and believes that everyone should know their farmer and know who grows their food.

“I recognize that farmers are the most courageous of all business people,” says Wiggins.  “They personify what we try to do in this country.”

She’s also seen what happens at the end of the season when farmers don’t sell all their produce. Food can rot and be wasted – often before it makes it out to people who could use it. She’s conscious and aware when it comes to all things food. 

Both women are tuned into the Michigan Good Food Charter, which outlines six goals to achieve by 2020. Goal number one is that Michigan institutions will source 20 percent of their food products from Michigan growers, producers, and processors.  

Detroit Public Schools, despite some monumental challenges, has been progressive in its commitment to feeding Michigan kids Michigan-grown food. This is due, in large part, to the work of Wiggins, who has been heavily engaged in making the entire food system better. 

She has reached out to Eastern Market, Detroit Food Policy Council, and directly to growers like Norman. In the past year, she purchased blueberries from Norman’s blueberry farm in Covert, potatoes from Kalkaska, peaches from Benton Harbor, and apples from Traverse City.

Norman is also engaged in food system work, keeping up with progress on the Michigan Good Food Charter and related policy changes and encouraging other farmers to do so as well. “My vision is to move with the change and be a game changer.”

While Norman can’t control the weather to impact farming, she is helping food systems boost awareness around serving local foods and encouraging diversity in the farming community. She’s received grant funds from the North Central Region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) program for reaching and working with underserved audiences to improve agriculture sustainability in the region.  

Wiggins is working to get other school food service directors to buy Michigan products and make an impact on their local food economy. “Everyone focuses on food standards, but it’s how you implement those standards. “

Her vision is to see some sort of incentive program for schools that serve meals with local food. “If we buy in Michigan, the money stays in Michigan and helps the farming industry grow,” says Wiggins. “These are the kind of things we are working on together.”

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