Our nation is in the throes of a health crisis. New articles appear on a daily (and sometimes hourly) basis outlining new symptoms of our national wellness crisis, from the effects of environmental toxins in our bodies to dangerous bacteria lurking in supposedly treated food. As many problems as there are, I also see a profusion of people, organizations, institutions and government bodies stepping up to make positive change. One branch of this field of activism is the Farm to School movement. Invigorated with the triangular purpose of improving childhood nutrition and health, teaching respect and reverence for the natural world, and supporting local food systems, Farm to School activism continues to gain momentum on the national, state and local levels. The time is ripe to reinvent and reinvigorate the food systems in place throughout our schools. And there is a great and pressing need for community involvement right here in the Madison area.
First Lady Michelle Obama has made headlines with her White House garden project, supported by the students at Bancroft Elementary School. Together with White House Chef Sam Kass, the Obamas have been outspoken advocates of school lunch reform and school gardening initiatives. They recognize that curing the national health crisis takes many approaches, including an emphasis on providing children healthy food choices while they are in school. Environmental stewardship, linking food back to the soil, water and air from which it grows, is also part of the Farm to School curriculum incorporated into the White House garden project.
Another exciting initiative enacted on the national level is the USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative. As Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stated, “An American people that is more engaged with their food supply will create new income opportunities for American agriculture. Reconnecting consumers and institutions with local producers will stimulate economies in rural communities, improve access to healthy, nutritious food for our families, and decrease the amount of resources to transport our food.” This initiative is chaired by Deputy Agricultural Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, and provides funding for programs throughout the United States that connect local food producers with local businesses and organizations. Farm to School initiatives will most certainly benefit from Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, enabling school food service personnel to connect with local farmers, bringing fresh local foods into the cafeteria.
The National Farm to School Program (NFSP) is a collaborative program of the Center for Food Justice (CFJ) and the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC). It seeks to institutionalize and create farm to school programs to improve the economic sustainability of family-scale farmers and support child nutrition efforts. This national network came into being as a result of a research project initiated by the Center for Food and Justice in 2000, which strongly supported the development of farm to school programs around the country. The NFSP is divided into eight regional groups, and provides resources and other forms of support to state-level Farm to School initiatives.
“Lunch is not just something schoolchildren eat. We are teaching principles and values about our food. We can do better. The kids deserve better.” –Lisa Jacobson, REAP Farm to School Program Director
The Wisconsin Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) is a USDA funded program that provides free fresh fruits and vegetables to children of participating elementary schools. The state Department of Public Instruction administers the program. As the FFVP states on their website, “The purpose of the program is to expand and increase the variety and amount of fruits and vegetables children experience and consume. Combined with nutrition education and a reinforcement of healthful eating habits, the program emphasizes the long-term goals of positively influencing children’s life-long eating habits and combating childhood obesity.” This program has an added component—it encourages schools to reach out to local food producers to purchase the aforementioned fresh whole produce. To qualify for funding, the school must be an elementary school that has 50% or greater of their students receiving free and/or reduced price meals. This funding allows schools to provide fresh produce to some of the kids who need it the most. Farm to school programs throughout Wisconsin help schools source local fresh ingredients, as well as provide in-classroom nutrition education curriculum.
Wisconsin is also home to the nation’s only Farm to School Ameri-Corps program. Farm to School AmeriCorps members serve one-year, part-time terms at various sites throughout Wisconsin. They work with school food service providers to assist in procuring and preparing local produce. Corps members also teach nutrition education curriculum in classrooms, help establish school gardens, organize produce tastings, along with a variety of other activities within the classroom. Administered through the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, this program continues to grow as Farm to School programs take off around the state!
Here in Madison
The Center for Intergrated Agricultural Studies (CIAS) houses the Great Lakes Region Farm to School Network, one of eight regional lead agencies of the National Farm to School program (mentioned above). Farm to school efforts in the region are wide ranging, vary greatly and are very exciting.
REAP (Research, Education, Action and Policy) Food Group has been involved in the Farm to School movement for eight years, since founding the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch program (now called REAP Farm to School) in 2002. REAP Farm to School’s stated goal is to “Seek to introduce healthy foods grown locally and sustainably to Wisconsin schoolchildren while developing stable markets for the producers and processors of those foods. By building respectful, working relationships between school educators, the school food service and our local food producers, we will establish a Midwest farm-to-school model to grow and thrive into the future.”
To achieve this goal, REAP Farm to School runs four different programs.
The Snack Program
Each weekend during the school year REAP staff, AmeriCorps members and dedicated volunteers prepare a fresh, locally produced fruit or vegetable snack to be delivered to participating schools. Examples of the snack include sweet potato sticks, heirloom cherry tomatoes, green beans, apples, kohlrabi and carrot sticks. Along with the snack comes a “Snack Bite”—educational materials about the produce itself, the farmer who grew it, and other fun facts to incorporate into class lessons. AmeriCorps members work with REAP to deliver nutrition education lessons to schools, teaching kids about the nutrient cycle, parts of a plant, and the origins of different foods.
Chef in the Classroom
Local chefs (including the Co-op’s own Josh Perkins) teach classes on food preparation to students at Sherman and Cherokee middle schools. Beyond the technical cooking instructions, students are also taught about local food systems and making healthy food choices, and exposed to sumptuous new foods. Whenever possible, produce from the schools’ gardens is incorporated, giving students a chance to participate in food production literally from soil to plate.
Harvest of the Month
REAP works with school districts in Monona Grove, Middleton and Mount Horeb to integrate one locally produced ingredient into their school lunch menus each month. By highlighting one ingredient each month, schools can begin to develop purchasing relationships with local farms, test out recipes and preparation techniques in their kitchens, and introduce new products to students.
Homegrown Holiday Fundraiser
Each year REAP offers an alternative to the usual gift wrap and popcorn school fundraisers. Underscoring the organization’s commitment to supporting local producers, products available for order through the Homegrown Holiday Fundraiser include a wide selection of locally made, hand-crafted and fairly traded items such as maple syrup, beeswax candles, summer sausage and chocolate covered cherries. Many schools use this money to fund their fresh snack program, or other school lunch/garden initiatives.
AmeriCorps Farm to School members
Four AmeriCorps members from the state’s Farm to School program work with REAP throughout the year on all of the programs listed above and more.
The Madison School Food Initiative
The Madison School Food Initiative is a group of parents, school district administrators and food service workers, the REAP Farm to School program director, local chefs and other community members. This group has been meeting since June 2009 to discuss potential changes to the school lunch program in Madison schools. After months of hard work, the Madison School Food Initiative has succeeded in inviting Beth Collins, an associate of Renegade Lunch Lady Ann Cooper, to Madison in late January. Collins will take an initial look at the Madison Metropolitan School District’s school food program and conduct a feasibility study, to see how MMSD might incorporate more local and fresh food option. Collins and Cooper run a business called Lunch Lessons, which has transformed school district food offerings in places like Boulder, Colorado and Berkley, California. Both women are accomplished chefs whose objective is to radically improve school lunch by serving foods with fresh, local ingredients. This visit is a very exciting step toward changing Madison school lunch. However, it is just one step. Much more work, including the drafting of a full-blown strategic plan for change is still to come in the future.