After their regular monthly meeting on May 2 was adjourned when commissioners could not agree on an agenda, the board was able to hold a special meeting this week to unanimously approve the department’s bills and employee expenses.
Unlike the proceedings of the May 2 meeting, all board members were in agreement on the May 15 agenda and subject matter.
The large turnout and dissolution of the meeting on May 2 were the result of board members’ disagreement over a grant that would have funded training for school food service directors and staff on the use of local produce in public school cafeterias.
The grant would have provided additional funds toward purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables, according to East Jordan Public Schools Superintendent Matt Stevenson, and without it the district’s ability to buy fresh produce for students will be impacted.
Antrim County Commissioner Jarris Rubingh, who chairs the programs and evaluations committee which made the recommendation to deny the grant, took umbrage with the grant being on the May 2 agenda because the decision to deny it had already been made at the subcommittee level.
Commissioners Scott Hankins, Don Mapes, Dawn LaVanway and Josh Chamberlain voted to approve the agenda and commissioners Jarris Rubingh, Rich Ginop, Jonathan Turnball and Henry Mason voted to not approve it. A tie vote signifies a failed motion.
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The grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund was a request by health department staff to create a two-year project worth up to $500,000 to improve the quality of nutrition for children in public schools in Emmet, Charlevoix and Antrim counties.
East Jordan’s Stevenson said the loss of the program would negatively impact his district.
“We’ve been utilizing the (grant) for years. It really allows us to enhance the foods that we bring to our students on a daily basis,” he said. “Normally the produce is pretty expensive and this allows us to afford them and bring them into our kitchens and cafeterias.
“We are concerned that we could lose this opportunity with local farmers … we were hoping this grant would help local farmers get this locally grown produce in our schools,” Stevenson added, explaining how the grant would have helped with transporting local produce, which is a more difficult and costly process than with frozen foods provided by larger corporations.
“We are upset (the grant was missed). This is something we have directly benefited from and been able to provide to our students. It really affects what our cooks do on a daily basis,” said Stevenson.
In the aftermath of the May 2 meeting, citizens continued to ask questions and comment on the missed school nutrition grant opportunity.
During the special meeting on May 15, over an hour was used to accommodate for public comment. More than 20 people spoke, many referencing the food grant. People both voiced their concerns about the board of health’s actions and their support for the decision.
“Having attended a meeting of the board of health last Monday, a meeting which was not allowed to be held because four members voted against approving the agenda, it was disheartening to see a room packed with concerned citizens who wanted their voices and concerns to be heard,” said Leslie Neilson from Charlevoix County. “It was obvious at least four commissioners had zero interest in hearing what the public, people they are supposed to be representing, had to say … it was obvious the same four board members already had their minds made up regarding applying for a grant that would have addressed food inequity in several of our communities.”
Marcy Beauchesne of Otsego County said, “I applaud the board for what they’ve done. I do think grants need oversight by elected officials and I’m tired of elected officials saying yes to everything and being like bobble heads to everything that comes across their desk.”
In a post on the Emmet Responsible Government website, Commissioner Rubingh outlined some of his reasons for opposing the school food grant. Among them were concerns about the “pass-through nature” of the grant, as the health department had identified the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities as a project partner on the school nutrition initiative. Rubingh alleged that the Groundwork Center advocates Critical Race Theory, and opposed the organization’s climate change activism and its partnership with FoodCorps.
In response to Rubingh’s allegations, Groundwork’s Executive Director Jeff Smith reiterated the organization’s work.
“All of our programs are solutions to the climate crisis — and they are good for the people and economy of our region. Climate change is a scientific fact and presents an existential threat to global humanity, including people in northern lower Michigan,” he said. “We believe that resilient communities are places where people of diverse experiences come together in welcoming, respectful ways. Advancing equity for all and standing against racism is necessary to achieve true community resilience. At Groundwork, we prioritize equity and anti-racism within all of our program areas. As an organization, Groundwork is committed to our ongoing journey to becoming a more just and equitable employer, community partner, and advocate.”
Stevenson noted that “Groundwork has done a lot for us in providing people to help facilitate some of these projects we do. I know they were really hoping for this grant to help facilitate some of the needs.”
It is unclear if there is an alternate route for funding the fresh fruit and vegetable grant for local public schools, the health department did not respond regarding this question before publication.
The next board of health meeting is scheduled to take place at 10 a.m. on June 6 at the Shirley Roloff Building in Charlevoix.
— Contact reporter Annie Doyle at (231)675-0099 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter, @adoylenews.