480 Wilson Road
East Lansing, Michigan 48824
Colleen Matts, farm to institution specialist at the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems, has seen kids become great farm to school ambassadors, taking their parents by the hand, sharing their knowhow about the value of locally grown food, and even telling parents where to purchase it. Matts sees kids leading the farm to school cause -- just as much as she is.
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
Hoophouses for Health Farm to Institution Specialist Colleen Matts
: To me, being a leader means cultivating an environment in which others can grow and succeed. The best advice I’ve received about being a leader is to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
That means taking risks, pushing the envelope, and going beyond standard practice procedures. It means being open to failure, because everything is not going to work. Leaders build on their own weaknesses, recognize and learn from their failures, and grow every day.
What is your dream for kids?
My dream for kids is that they will all be able to enjoy healthy, mostly local, delicious food at school and at home, from pre-school all the way through college.
I dream that the school cafeteria will be more widely seen as an education space where kids can develop healthy behaviors and an appreciation for Michigan agriculture and food that will last a lifetime. They can learn this at school and take it home with them – kids are the ambassadors that increase awareness of what healthy food is available locally.
It’s an evolution, and kids are the key to a healthier population.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
One thing that could improve the environment for social sector work, especially for young professionals, I think, is to have the time and funding to dedicate to professional development and networking opportunities -- including learning from mentors.
These pieces can get lost as we continually seek to find funding while we accomplish our required objectives and report the funding efforts -- and while we check more work off our lists. They are pieces that should be deemed by funders as
I dream that the school cafeteria will be more widely seen as an education space where kids can develop healthy behaviors and an appreciation for Michigan agriculture and food that will last a lifetime.
worthwhile and important. Putting some of our development efforts toward professional development and networking should be included in our job descriptions as legitimate line items in our budgets, no matter the source of funding.
How do you know you’re making progress?
I know our farm to school and farm to institution work is making progress because these our programs have clearly matured and the conversations around them have elevated over the years. Five years ago, questions centered on the basic “how to” of getting local fruits and vegetables from farmers into school food service programs. Today, we are talking more about scaling up --scaling up to more products and different types, including dry beans, meats, dairy, and processed products.
We are also scaling up to partner with different types of institutions like hospitals, public schools, senior centers, and universities – scaling up through many different types of food sources than we did in the past, including distributors, food hubs, farmers and others involved in food and agricultural organizations.
I know our collective work at the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems is progressing because our efforts, in partnership with our various colleagues and stakeholders around the state and the country, are repeated back to us: when we hear people talking about us and how important the work we are doing has become.
To me, that shows ownership of work that is becoming embedded in the fabric of the community.
What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of all of the practitioners that are making farm to school and farm to institution initiatives work on the ground level, despite the many hurdles that may stand in their way, such as budgets, governmental rules and regulations, and lack of equipment.
Farm to School is a win-win: it supports Michigan farm families and food businesses through local spending while it provides Michigan's children, including the most vulnerable, with increased access to fresh, healthy, local foods...
These people are the true leaders in the arena of food systems work; my job is to help them connect the dots within their communities and have the information they need to work toward their goals, and then to learn from them so I can share their success stories and lessons learned with others. School food service directors, in particular, have thankless, nearly impossible jobs, so I have the utmost respect for them. They are willing to go the extra mile to provide good food for their customers – the kids.
In your opinion, what makes the many components of farm to school so vital to Michigan's vulnerable children and families? Both for the present and future.
Farm to School is a win-win: it supports Michigan farm families and food businesses through local spending while it provides Michigan’s children, including the most vulnerable, with increased access to fresh, healthy, local foods, greater exposure to a variety of foods, and hands-on tools for learning that they can share with their families.
Farm to school cultivates the next generation of eaters and buyers. For example, a child who is exposed to a variety of tasty Michigan apples will continue to reach for those apples. We are bringing foods into schools that kids have never tasted, like rutabaga, parsnips, and asparagus.
Roasted asparagus goes over very well in K-12 schools, and most people are surprised by that. We worked with kids in Flint and Genesee County who had never tasted plums, and they just loved them. Plums are sweet, they are juicy and they are small -- the perfect size for little hands.
These results are wonderful Farm to School components that help kids learn both to support local growers and to promote healthy lifestyles as they grow into adults.