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The Local Beet: Change Taking Root in the Lunch Line

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Paul Baumgartner, Director of GRPS' Food & Nutrition Services wants to convert their parking lot to greenhouses for tomatoes.

Paul Baumgartner, Director of GRPS' Food & Nutrition Services wants to convert their parking lot to greenhouses for tomatoes. /Lisa Rose Starner

There is an ever-growing revolution happening in cafeterias around the country – people want to change what is in their lunchline at work, school, and in hospitals. This week, I joined over 500 people – from activists, to nutritionists, to food service professionals, to farmers, to students – in Detroit in an effort to move forward a good food agenda in our collective lunchline as part of the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference: Taking Root.

Hosted by the National Farm to School Network and in partnership with the Community Food Security Coalition, the Taking Root Conference highlighted model programs growing in Detroit as well as presentations from practitioners in the farm to cafeteria movement around the country.

Policy, procurement, local supply chains, funding, educational opportunities, research and evalutaion were all topics of conversation among the participants, which included expertise from the USDA and Center for Disease Control. While the info-share was intense, it was truly energizing to connect with other passionate people who are working to change what we eat in the United States.

Being the only delegate at the conference from Grand Rapids, I couldn't help but focus my concentration on what we in Grand Rapids could learn from our sister organizations in Detroit, such as Greening of Detroit, Capuchin Soup Kitchen, and Eastern Market.

These organizations, as well as others in Detroit, are innovating because of scarcity. With the scarcity of resources they have in Detroit, they rely on each other to change their community together. And while there are some really cool ideas unfolding to re-generate Detroit, it was their mantra of cooperation that I found to be most relevant to Grand Rapids.

Meeting the residents in Detroit who are making change in their community with little more than basic necessities was a powerful experience. It forced me to re-evaluate my efforts for food change right here in Grand Rapids.

With an abundance of resources that we have here in Grand Rapids, how could I help better connect the dots between our efforts so they go father and faster for deep rooted change in our food system? And who's in my hood doing the work in the system that needs my help?

My thoughts immediately went to the Grand Rapids Public Schools – how do we collectively work together to serve our community's urban school district and help increase access to food that is sustainably grown, organic, local and ethically produced? How do we garden with them so they know what tomatoes look and smell like on the vine? How do we make sure that our City's kids have enough good food to eat EVERY DAY?

I conjure up a picture of the Grand Rapids Public Schools with the facts -- an urban school district serving nearly 18,000 meals a day to a group of children of which nearly 73% live in poverty. I then visualize a food service team focused on a core mission to make sure each one of those children are at their academic best by being well-nourished and ready to learn.

And then one would assume that the next image in my mind is a vision of the proverbial lunch lady, heading up the whole show in our GRPS' cafeterias. Well, not quite. The team's leader is no lunch lady, for sure. He's a self-proclaimed Food Dude.

With a stature well over six feet tall, Paul Baumgarnter towers over most people. Photos in his office show his variety of hobbies; boat building among them, as well as an archive photo from the 1970s featuring Baumgartner as a teenager helping construct the large barn on the farm at the Blandford Nature Center.

Nearly 30 years later, this figure – towering presence but a gentle spirit – is the head of Grand Rapids Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services Department.  But he's not the Lunch Lady, he corrects me. He is the Food Dude, a born and bred Grand Rapidian among us.

“I was born and raised in Grand Rapids. I used to ride my bike from Kentwood on 52nd, to Griggs, where I would take the crosstown bus to Blandford. I was in their first class of 6th graders in 1973.” From there, Baumgartner went on to graduate from City High School, then attended MSU to achieve a degree in Hotels, Restaurants, and Institutional Management.

“The industry has definitely changed since I received my degree,” says Baumgartner. “I've worked in institutional foodservice at Steelcase, Kent County Hospital, and have been at Grand Rapids Public Schools since 1989. We continue to get better at our jobs for our kids every year.”

Every day, the real kitchens of Grand Rapids Public Schools are filled with staff preparing meals from scratch for 18,500 schoolchildren. The staff prepares about 7,000 breakfasts for kids each day, about 13,000 lunches and then another 2,000 after school snacks. “To put that in some kind of perspective: we have to have at the ready 25 - that's right - (25) 55 gallon drums of milk available every day.”

During my most recent visit to the kitchen, it smelled of simmering onions and spices as the kitchen chef prepared a full batch of taco meat. For many schools, there are no staff personally preparing meals in a kitchen. At Grand Rapids Public Schools, the staff has an ability to prepare the meals from scratch and exercise quality control over the food procured. Including procuring and featuring local foods.

“We are getting the word out about our efforts in purchasing local foods, but there are also trade-offs we have to make in food procurement,” explains Baumgartner. “There are budget issues, and the challenge of working on the scale that we do.”

“However, the supply chain is getting better, and we are improving our local purchasing in a variety of ways. One is by working through Gordon Food Service, who is progressively beginning to make sure place of origin is on the order form as well as on the boxes. So then, we know where the food is coming from and can make choices with our budgets as we do the ordering on a weekly basis,” Baumgartner explains. He notes that the department not only uses Gordons but also orders foods directly from farmers when he can, as well as other local distributors such as Van Eerden's.

Concurrent to the Farm to Cafeteria conference in Detroit, Baumgartner's team created a Local Michigan Menu featuring food their local suppliers. From local bread, to milk, to cheese, to apples and asparagus, GRPS is demonstrating that they are working to make change and buy locally to the degree that they can.

Some might write off these small efforts of the GRPS Nutrition Team as insignificant. But there is innovation inside the Food and Nutrition Services Department; and at the helm of the department, there is Baumgartner with his ideas.

“While we are on the subject of new ideas,” he says, “We've got a parking lot that I am thinking we could grow our own tomatoes in greenhouses for the District's food program,” Baumgartner smiles to me. “Do you know anyone that can help me with that?”

I smile back and make a note to myself to try to make some connections for Baumgartner on the tomato project.

With that, I am reminded: It's not about the food. This good food movement is about the people. While it may not be perfect utopia right now, we certainly can work together to change our food system – one juicy tomato at a time.

***To make a difference in your own lunchline, start asking questions about your food, where it comes from and how it might be different. Work together, learn more - It takes time and is a process. Here are other links to connect to the Farm to Cafeteria Movement:

Michigan Farm to School Purchasing Guide

Farm to School Network

Eat to a New Beet

Let's Move


Disclosure: Lisa Rose Starner is a Grand Rapidian and has worked in the area of food and community in Grand Rapids for nearly a decade. This is the first of many food-related articles for her new series in the Rapidian, The Local Beet. An avid gardener and cook, Lisa grows vegetables and herbs with her family on Grand Rapids' West Side. Beyond holding a degree in anthropology and a Masters in Public Administration; Lisa is currently a student of Great Lakes herbalist, Jim McDonald. She is enjoying her newest hyper-local food adventure as a backyard herbalist.

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