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NW Public Health Dept grant denied because of Jarris Rubingh

Jarris Rubingh: Observations

By Harbor Light News Staff | on April 26, 2023

By Charlie MacInnis

There appears to be no bottom to the downward spiral of the governing body for the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, made up of eight county commissioners, two each from Emmet, Charlevoix, Otsego and Antrim counties, most newly elected.

At its most recent public monthly meeting, the board deadlocked on a poorly drafted, punitive and mostly illegal measure crafted by an unknown author with unknown legal training brought forth by an Emmet County commissioner. It would have attempted to severely restrict the health department staff ’s authority in a future emergency in defiance of state law.

On Monday, April 17, a four-member committee of the board also deadlocked in an important meeting not announced to the public. The committee temporarily blocked a request by health department staff to seek a two-year grant worth up to $500,000 to improve the quality of nutrition for children in Emmet, Charlevoix and Antrim County public schools.

Grant applications were a routine health department staff function until the new board decided that it needed to insert itself and require that a committee of four commissioners review certain grant applications with the clear intent of rejecting as many as possible.

The grant before the committee would fund training for school food service directors and staff on the use of local produce in school cafeterias. The health department would also provide nutrition education lessons to classrooms, support coordination of pop-up farmers markets in schools, and assist in completing kitchen audits.

Students and families could participate in food education in nutrition, cooking, and gardening. If successful, staff hoped to see decreases in student obesity and school nurse visits and increases in the number of fruits and vegetables consumed by students and families.

Petoskey, Pellston, Alanson, East Jordan, Boyne Falls, Boyne City, Ellsworth and Central Lake schools all expressed interest. As an added incentive to sign up, participating schools would be eligible for federal grant money at 10 cents a meal that could be worth tens of thousands of dollars in a school year.

It was essentially a freebie with no local tax dollars involved. Funding would come from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, a statewide body created in 2013 by the legislature as part of a deal to make certain changes to how Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) operates. The law required BCBSM to contribute up to $1.56 billion over 18 years to a fund benefitting children and seniors. One portion focuses on access to healthy food.

Apparently, that was just too much for the committee. Because it was not made public, we have to rely on witness accounts of what transpired. Reportedly, an Antrim County commissioner on the committee (and dairy farmer by trade) expressed concern that the hiring of a single half-time staff person to carry out the grant could somehow reduce the talent pool available to work as a waitress at local restaurants. I hope he was misquoted.

Charlevoix County Commissioner Josh Chamberlain, a member of the board of health who serves on the dysfunctional committee and voted in favor of the grant application, notes that many children in our area are attracted to highly processed foods and all would benefit from any program that helps them eat more balanced meals with fresh fruits and vegetables edging out chips and other snacks.Although only two of the four members of the committee voted against the proposal, thus a deadlock, the Antrim County commissioner who chairs the committee reportedly wanted to block consideration by the full board at its next public meeting on Tuesday, May 2. In fact, by board policy, Roberts Rules of Order and the Michigan Open Meetings Act, the vote was only advisory. It will be on the May 2 agenda for thenfull board. The agenda should be posted online.

You have time to contact your county commissioner if you have an opinion The website for the Health Department of Northwest Michigan has commissioner contact and board meeting information. It’s best to contact commissioners in your own county. Deadline for submission of the grant application to the funding agency is May 4.

(Charlie MacInnis is a former Emmet County Commissioner for District 3.)

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