Ditch the doughnuts and pass the peaches! Northern Michigan has a variety of locally sourced health food options. We asked Taste the Local Difference Project Coordinator Tricia Phelps to weigh in on how to keep the kids healthy—the fun way!

For kids, summer break can be a time of ice cream on hot days, cotton candy at local fairs and junk food. What are some tips for parents hoping to keep their kids on track with healthy eating?

Tricia: Fruit is nature’s candy—and it’s not half bad for you either! Get your kids excited about the berries, cherries and peaches that are naturally sweet and grown nearby. If your kids don’t like snacking on fruit, get a little creative by making your own fruit popsicles or delicious smoothies for that afternoon sweet treat.

If you’re headed to the beach have the kids help you make a picnic! They’ll get involved in the process and you’ll all be less tempted by the street carts or ice cream stands because you have a cooler filled with delicious food everyone worked hard to create.

What are some Northern Michigan activities kids (and/or families) can partake in that connect them to our local food systems?

Tricia: U-Pick Farms are fun for the whole family because kids are involved in an outdoor activity that is fun and engaging. Not only is it a task they can easily complete, but they’re also learning where their food comes from. We’re lucky to have so many wonderful farms to choose from in northwest Michigan that encourage and welcome visitors; in fact, we have a long list of them on the Taste the Local Difference® website here. The kids will have so much fun picking their own food (and eating some, too). Its likely to become a tradition they’ll look forward to every year.

NMC’s College for Kids hosts a number of cooking classes throughout the summer. Different classes based on age give kids a hands-on learning experience while teaching them about food and how to prepare it. They’re likely to come back inspired and excited to help you in the kitchen at home.

It’s important to remember that the food system cycle isn’t just about production—it’s also about waste. If parents want to educate their kids on a more sustainable way of living, get them engaged in recycling and composting. It can be as simple as signing up for a local composting service and educating the kids on what is and isn’t compostable—I’d bet a quick lesson from our friend Carter of Carter’s Compost would get the kids engaged and excited about composting their food scraps. Food Scraps + Worms + Carbon = Magic.

Your website also mentions camps that source locally grown food. Is there one summer camp that’s leading the way with nutritious Up North meals?

Camp Hayo-Went-Ha on Arbutus Lake is a great example of taking the initiative to source local products for healthy meals and educating campers during the process. Camp Director Amanda Macaluso explained to me that for about five years now the camp has had a farm share at Birch Point Farm in Traverse City. Once a week they send a busload of campers out to the farm to help with chores—like weeding or picking bugs off potato plants! In return they bring a share of fruit and vegetables back to camp to be used in group meals.

What are your top suggestions for healthy, local Northern Michigan restaurants that also boast good kids menus?

Here are a few great restaurants that source locally and prepare delicious food—in addition to being kid-friendly.

Blue Heron Cafe & Bakery—Traverse City or Cadillac
Julienne Tomatoes—Petoskey
Grand Traverse Pie Co.—Three locations in northwest Michigan
Roast & Toast—Petoskey
The Redheads Cafe—Lake Leelanau

Where are the best retail markets or grocery stores to find healthy, local food for the family?

Food Co-ops like the Grain Train or Oryana have a great selection of healthy & local food—whether you’re looking for something organic or local, or both! The co-ops will have those options available to you.

Oleson’s Food Stores have a pretty outstanding selection of healthy local produce too, and proteins! Each store’s produce manager has their own relationships with local farmers and you’ll see a variety of products available throughout the growing season—highlighted with Taste the Local Difference®!

I’m also excited to mention that Tom’s Food Markets have made a big commitment to local produce this year. They’ve always held a number of great relationships with local farmers, but this year they decided to amplify their efforts with the help of TLD & Cherry Capital Foods. Shortly you’ll be seeing a Taste the Local Difference® Local Produce section pop up in all the stores!

Why do you feel it’s important to introduce kids to our local food system and encourage them to know where their food comes from?

In today’s world it’s really easy to be out of touch with where your food comes from. We have many conveniences built into our food system that ultimately separate us as consumers from the farmer that grows our food. It’s likely that if kids aren’t told otherwise they’d believe food simply comes from a store or restaurant and not consider the path it took to get there. Educating kids about the local food system is all about health, awareness, and community—things kids should learn about from an early age.

How would you explain the food system to kids, and what would you tell them to help them understand what it means to eat healthy?

The food system is a cycle and, for me, it’s easier to understand the basics with a visual and an example. I’d start by picking a simple fruit or vegetable—an apple for instance—and explain the system by following that apple through each step. Start with how the apple grows on the farm and once ripe, is harvested and distributed. Next, remind them that some apples are sold fresh, but others are processed into things like applesauce or apple juice adding another step in the cycle. Then move on to where we find the apple at the farmers market or grocery store and take it home to eat. And lastly, the waste that’s left over after the apple is consumed—how the core can be turned into compost, continuing the cycle and helping other fruits and vegetables grow.

Clearly the details of the food system can become incredibly in-depth, but simply, the fewer steps involved in the cycle—between farm and table—the healthier and more nutritious your food is likely to be.

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Photo(s) by Gary Howe