“What about lunch?”
     -Winnie the Pooh, abridged

Over the course of the last two years, the Willy Street Co-op Production Kitchen has been serving hot lunch food to two Madison schools one day a week. During this time, several other Madison area schools, both public and private, have contacted me to discuss the role that the Kitchen might be able to play in their lunch program. All of them, seemingly, faced very similar obstacles when considering our services. It might be surprising to some, but although budget was certainly a concern, it was handily trumped by the challenge of simply serving food to students using an old-school cafeteria line setup. Regardless of the size of the program or the nature of the menu sought, many discussions that might have held the promise of introducing a hot lunch option to students provided by Willy Street Co-op simply folded when the prospect of deviating from a pre-packaged meal service came up.

True potential

The Production Kitchen, as most know, was built to accommodate the anticipated needs of a second retail site, one which did not materialize in the expected time frame. The facility, being a very new and very well-maintained wholesale kitchen, also represents a potential stopover/processing plant for locally grown products to the Madison food community at large. Seeing this when I took over management of the Kitchen in January 2006, I started to imagine ways in which a kitchen established as a satellite to Willy Street Co-op grocery, adherent to the social and environmental mission of the Co-op, could best fulfill its true potential. By “true” potential, I refer to the potential of any business to contribute to its native community in ways beyond sheer generation of revenue and employment. Every business has external effects on the neighborhoods that surround and support it, and I wanted the Kitchen to be of service to the City in the most positive way possible. Besides serving as the engine of the premier natural foods deli in the City, I thought we might be able to contribute to the nutritional future of Madison’s schools.

Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch

For three years, the Kitchen served as processor for the snacks provided by Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch to Falk, Lincoln, Sherman and Midvale Schools. This was a great way for us to find out what our capacities were and to figure out smart ways to process and ship large amounts of food effectively. Most importantly, the feedback from students as far as the palatability of the food (primarily raw vegetables) was very positive.

School lunch

About a year after we had quadrupled the number of schools we were serving through the Homegrown Lunch program, we began serving 50-60 students each Friday at Wingra School. The menus were very familiar territory for us and for the kids—lasagna, mac and cheese, minestrone, chicken casserole. A vegetable and fresh fruit were served as accompaniments. Again, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Budget was an early red flag—the kids had been eating pizza on Fridays and there was no way we could supply a casserole and organic fruit and vegetable side that was price-competitive with that. The next year, we moved into a Friday service for a somewhat smaller group of children at Holy Cross on Milwaukee Street. Again (and this was confirmed by a recent discussion with the personnel coordinating that program), our food is well-loved by the kids eating it, but the general price of the other lunch offerings is at or below $2 per serving. We couldn’t match that.

The rule rather than the exception

Now, with schools starting, conversations that have been dormant over the summer are reawakening. I find myself wanting to push the level of locally sourced, unprocessed food available to kids in Madison beyond the snack level to the meal level—to find some ways to make this kind of food the rule rather than the exception. The effort needed to further this agenda is monumental by any reckoning, but enough people have expressed interest to me directly to make me think that there may be the time and the energy needed to make it work.

I am working on ways to drive the costs of certain menu items that I believe are kid-friendly down to the point where I can get in that $2-3 neighborhood—mainly by looking at large harvest-time purchases from local farmers that can be processed into casseroles or stews and kept frozen for winter use. I am seeing where it is possible to supplant canned California organics with local produce processed and frozen in our Kitchen and also looking at which crops can be supplied most cost-effectively for meals at this price point. (This will be showing up first in the form of Happy Valley tomatoes replacing, for as much of the winter as we can manage, Muir Glen canned tomatoes. Next year we should be able to cover the whole season, having learned more about our needs and capacities.) It’s uphill work, but I think it has promise.

Give us your kid-friendly ideas

If you have input on this matter, I urge you to fill out a Customer Comment form letting me know what kinds of foods your kids like to eat from Willy Street Co-op or prepared at home with our products—and how you are approaching budgeting for school lunches now. As we move into the spring of 2010, I am hoping to host a discussion at the store for people interested in this issue so I can learn more about priorities and boundaries for parents concerned with improving the food available in their schools. Please keep an eye on the Reader for more details.