Salt of the Earth: Mark Doherty and the circle of good in Michigan

December 9, 2007

By Dick Lehnert

When Mark Doherty became chairman of the Michigan Apple Committee this year, he took the helm with a reputation in place. He was “The Apple Man,” who put Michigan apples into the food system of Traverse City Area Public Schools.

Because of his efforts, 10,000 kids in his local K-12 school district were eating 40 bushels of locally produced Michigan apples every week.

What seems astonishing, on the face of it, is that children in a school district in the nation’s third largest apple producing state were not routinely eating Michigan apples.

But Greg Wilson, who works for the Michigan Apple Committee (MAC) promoting Michigan-grown apples, estimates that 80 percent of the apples eaten in Michigan schools come from Washington state – and the remaining 20 percent is split, with Michigan growers getting only a portion and other sales going to New York and Virginia.

For Denise Yockey, MAC’s executive director, the situation is exasperating – but there is progress. Two years ago, she and MAC board members staged a showdown with Michigan State University (MSU) when the children of apple growers attending the land-grant institution asked their parents why Michigan apples weren’t available on campus.

Investigating, they found that less than 7 percent of the apples served at MSU came from Michigan – and most of the rest came from Washington. They called on MSU’s food service department, were unable to crack its food procurement system–, and ultimately precipitated a gunfight at the OK Corral. The board voted to withhold funding from MSU researchers. Nearly a quarter of a million dollars a year in Michigan apple growers’ money was funding research to help grow apples that the same institution wouldn’t buy.

Ultimately, peace was restored and good relations were established. MSU worked to get Michigan apples through its two large foodservice vendors. Now, half the apples in food service at MSU are produced in Michigan.

A broken system

When critics claim that the American food system is broken, Michigan apple people can put forth supporting examples.

But rather than blaming the system, Yockey believes Michigan apple growers and marketers haven’t fully understood how the food procurement system works and haven’t properly fit themselves into it.

Luckily, they still have another chance. A strong “buy local” movement is building across the United States, aimed at consumers –especially those who shop at farm and farmers’ markets. But another part of it includes a “farm to school” movement-, in which farmers seek to make a direct connection to their local schools. And that’s part of an even larger effort to pressure state and local institutions of all kinds to buy products produced in or near their own state. The National Farm to School Program claims there are 1,000 organized efforts underway across the country.

“Buy local” is partially related to the growing realization that what people do leaves a “carbon footprint,” the size determined by how much fuel energy is expended in processes that produce and transport food.

But for Doherty, it wasn’t philosophy that brought fresh Michigan apples into Traverse City schools. It was mostly human contact.

“I was approached by a parent group at Central Elementary School in the fall of 2004,” he said. “They had a garden club for the elementary kids, and they invited me to talk to them about apple growing and the production process. I brought in fresh apples, and the same day they were featured on the lunch menu.”

That day, the kids ate apples like they’d never tasted them before. Doherty thinks there were several reasons.

First, the apples tasted better. He’s convinced that a Red Delicious apple shipped from 2,000 miles away is not going to taste anywhere close to as good as a Royal Gala apple from a local orchard. Kids like that sweeter apple.

And that’s putting prejudice aside. Michigan growers have long insisted that their apples, variety for variety, taste better than Washington apples and have described Western varieties as flavorless, pretty colored, red on the outside and hard and green on the inside.

Secondly, Doherty said, the direct connection to the farmer added something to the eating experience.

Buying local

Traverse City kids continue to eat apples – Doherty supplies most of them – because of the connection built that day. The parents, teachers and administrators were all enthusiastic about it.

More importantly, perhaps, Kristen Misiak was enthusiastic.

Misiak is food service director for Traverse City’s public schools. For 10 years, she has overseen operations feeding lunch, sometimes breakfast and sometimes snacks to 10,000 kids in 20 schools 180 days a year.

The Traverse City system, once pretty standard, is now “very unusual,” she said. While most school districts have gone to one central kitchen that prepares food and transports it to others, there is a kitchen in every one of the 20 Traverse City schools – three high schools, two middle schools and 15 elementaries. In them, entrees are prepared every day.

On Nov. 8, kids had an early Thanksgiving lunch of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, dressing, squash and pie. But that was not an ordinary example. They had a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup the day before.

“Not everything is prepared from scratch,” Misiak said. “Some is purchased prepared. We don’t bake bread from scratch, but we do bake some goods, and one favorite is baked apples.”

Lunch costs $2 for an elementary student, $2.25 for those in higher grades. At those prices, “we’re not a burden on the general fund,” Misiak said. The food system pays its own way. Kitchen staffs generate extra money by catering meals for meetings and events and selling a la carte items. Overall, it doesn’t cost the district more money to operate in this more expensive way.

Moreover, she said, if kids like the food and parents like the way their kids are eating, it builds the program and spreads costs over more participants – and that brings more federal support.

“Local food is fresher,” Misiak said. “The kids seem to like it more. And they see the farmer. They see the connection.”

While the apple connection was the first, she has since reached out to other farmers in the community to procure potatoes, squash and asparagus. There are other opportunities for other growers producing other foods.

Takes effort

To make it happen takes effort on both sides. The school has to be willing to deal with more vendors. It’s easy to let big distributors like Sysco or Gordon Food Services deliver everything.

“The big challenge is fitting into the whole supply chain,” Yockey said.

For her, that means getting the big foodservice distributors to choose Michigan apples.

For her part, Misiak reaches out to local growers by preparing bid specification sheets they can use. Local growers must bid to bring their products into the system, and they have to meet the specifications.

But what goes on the sheet is much more specific than merely stating “113-count red apples,” which is almost guaranteed to fetch Washington Delicious. The sheet can specify a variety like Gala.

It also can specify how apples should be packed. Washington has provided tray-packed apples for years, while Michigan packers have stuck with bags. To make the system work, somebody has to change – or at least be aware of what the rules are.

“The bid that I put together is only sent to local farmers,” Misiak said. “They must fill in the information and submit it to me by the deadline. Then, I compare prices as well as other criteria such as pack size, minimum delivery, other product availability from the same farmer, etc.

“One reason that our relationship with Mark Doherty has worked so well is because he has other products available. For the past few years, we have also purchased Bosc and Bartlett pears from him, as well as squash and frozen cherries. This allows us to squeeze variety and quantity into every delivery we receive.”

“I also compare the prices with like items that may be available from our commercial distributor. The prices for the local products we have purchased are very competitive, so the decision to buy local is an easy one – of course, depending on the product.”

Misiak has found that her system’s vendor, Gordon Food Service, has been making efforts to stock and sell Michigan produce.

Doherty has to fit the system, too.

“I’ve devoted some energy to help make this work,” he said. “Tuesday is delivery day. Every Tuesday morning, I make from 13 to 18 stops, delivering 40 to 45 bushels of apples, total, to the different schools. The system requires that, and I have to meet the needs. I have to make it work.”

He has to conform to school access requirements, wheeling in the boxes through secure areas. The benefit is that everybody sees him do it. Kids say, “Here’s the apple man.”

“I see teachers and students. It is the personal contact that makes it work.”

The limited storage area each kitchen has and the desire to keep foods fresh means he has to deliver smaller quantities more often. He provides additional services like rotating stock in the cooler.

Sophisticated demand

The biggest boon for Michigan apple growers has been the rise of more sophisticated demand. MAC’s efforts have been directed toward influencing demand as expressed by important decision-makers. While individual growers like Doherty are knocking on schoolhouse doors, organizations like MAC, representing hundreds of growers, are working to capitalize on the “buy local” factor.

This fall, Wilson and Yockey developed a plan to contact school board members at more of the state’s 525 school districts. They attended the annual show put on by the Michigan Association of School Boards. They also attended the Michigan School Food Service Conference, a similar show.

Wilson, who was once a school board member, knows that boards are made up of elected members of the community who can direct policy by influencing decisions made by the superintendent, school staff and administration.

“I get a lot of surprised looks when I tell them their kids aren’t eating Michigan apples,” Wilson said about meeting the board members. “It comes as a complete surprise to almost all of them.”

The strategy is to attend school board meetings and tell the story to the boards.

“We’re trying to back-door it,” Wilson said. “We’ll target a few schools this year and see how it goes.”

MAC has other school success stories. School districts in Grand Rapids, Battle Creek and Dearborn have converted to Michigan apples, Yockey said.

“Kids are happy with the apples,” she said. “They are less likely to throw away apples they like. In the Grand Rapids schools, apple consumption has doubled in the two years since they went to Michigan apples.”

Half-eaten apples in trash barrels are a symptom that school administrators can readily see, and a change in that is visible, too. It helps sell apples that kids prefer.

All this assumes that Michigan growers are willing and able to provide high-quality apples that don’t just brag, but perform.

Doherty, who is a pest management consultant for Hort Systems and works with about 25 growers in the Traverse City area, is in partnership with John and Jim King at King Orchards near Elk Rapids. They have 20 acres of high-density apples on trellises that are 12 years old. Varieties include Honeycrisp, Gala, Ginger Gold and McIntosh. These apples go to fresh market though, in his area, most apples are grown for processing.

Obviously, if Michigan apples are to be in demand, the quality must be there. That means good varieties, the right size, properly mature, stored right and packed to stay bruise-free. Can they do that?

“If a bumpkin from Elk Rapids can figure it out, they should be able to,” Doherty said.



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