This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.
Thousands of people are aided by food pantries in Northwest Michigan where families live with food insecurity. While food pantries address food emergencies in the immediate sense, they aren’t a long-term solution to a long-standing problem. It takes a larger policy, systems and environmental change (PSE) approach.
Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District (TBAISD) is addressing food insecurity through their district-wide SNAP-Ed program. SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches those eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. As a State Implementing Agency for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Michigan Fitness Foundation offers competitive grant funding for local and regional organizations, including TBAISD, to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout Michigan.
A simple conversation between a Buckley Community Schools principal and TBAISD officials planted the seeds for a farm to school PSE initiative that combined nutrition education with a new community garden at the school. A small, rural community in Wexford County, Buckley is a village of about 700 residents that lies in an agricultural region. Local farms are largely commercial, growing soybeans, feed corn, and oats. The community does not have a full-service grocery store, and Traverse City, home to multiple grocery stores and other fresh food outlets, is about a 30-minute drive away.
With SNAP-Ed acting as a catalyst and support from the school’s teachers and administrators, donations from local merchants, and community members who care for the garden, the Buckley Community Garden has been a success. It is a source of fresh food for families and provides a venue for hands-on nutrition and healthy eating education for students. In fact, students in all grade levels have helped plant and care for a cornucopia of vegetables – tomatoes, corn, asparagus, and cucumbers. The 90-foot-by-50-foot garden also serves as community space where Buckley residents can engage and harvest fruits and vegetables for their families.
Kids pick produce at the Buckley Community Garden.
“It’s a different level of engagement to get them in the greenhouse or garden and plant seeds, take care of the plants, and help with the harvest,” says Terra Bogart, SNAP-Ed nutrition education coordinator for TBASID. “It brings kids full circle in learning about food and healthy eating. This really deepens the effect of our SNAP-Ed programming.”
The Buckley Community Garden also serves an important role in the greater community by providing critically needed healthy food to local pantries for people facing food emergencies, Bogart says.
Produce from the Buckley Community Garden.
“It’s definitely a lower-income community and there are issues with getting food at grocery stores,” Bogart says. “There are transportation issues. And for some families, fresh produce is often too expensive.”
While the garden is a success, the COVID-19 pandemic created new challenges this past summer.
With hands-on learning and social interactions suspended, school staff stepped in to plant and maintain the 4,500-square-foot garden. The lack of summer interaction with students created an abundance of produce. TBAISD connected with a local church and donated vegetables – cucumbers, zucchini, corn, potatoes, onions, kale, green beans and jalapenos – to the Buckley Food Pantry, a project of The Tabernacle Church in Buckley.
The Buckley Food Pantry experienced steady demand during the statewide shutdown and saw an uptick in demand from families in need in late July when the government’s additional unemployment payments expired. Any excess produce that the Buckley Food Pantry could not distribute was donated to the Food Rescue of Northwest Michigan in Traverse City.
“Food pantries are always struggling to get enough healthy produce. People want more produce at the food pantries,” says Taylor Moore, food rescue manager for Goodwill Northern Michigan, which oversees Food Rescue of Northwest Michigan. “When we get food from these gardens, it’s the best quality produce out there, it’s locally sourced, and it has a longer shelf life. It’s great for the community.”
“The garden has definitely been a valuable resource for the Buckley community,” Bogart says. “This community collaboration is benefitting a lot of people and having a ripple effect.”
During the pandemic, TBAISD pivoted to produce virtual (online) nutrition lessons and worked with other local partners to coordinate the distribution of donated vegetable seedlings for families to plant at their homes. This spring, more than 500 seedlings were distributed to families of schools in three regions, and this fall, staff passed out seedlings for cabbage, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, and other cold-weather crops.
Harvesting at the Buckley Community Garden.
“Families have become more interested in fresh produce, realizing it tastes far better than the store-bought alternative,” says Marshall Collins, TBAISD’s instructional service specialist for school health and social studies. “The Buckley Community Garden has made an impact on students, parents, and community residents.”
Collins says the garden’s impact extends beyond Buckley and the other schools with community gardens. It helps in the short term as well as the long term as families learn how to grow their own food and create a new source that improves their food security. School districts across the state have reached out to TBAISD to find out how to start their own community gardens. Since then, community gardens have sprouted up in Northport and Lake City, and garden beds have been constructed at the New Campus School in Traverse City with plantings to come.
As a result of local partnerships, the SNAP-Ed PSE strategies used in Buckley to create the Buckley Community Garden have become a model for other schools that are looking to make healthy choices possible in their communities.
“We like to see teachers show students and families how to garden, how to understand gardening and how they can really do things for themselves at home,” Collins says. “The garden inspires people to get back to creating their own foods.”