For over 19 years, or nearly five presidential terms, REAP has worked to improve the local food system. Many people know REAP for community events like Burgers & Brew and Pie Palooza, but how has REAP improved the local food landscape and what is next?
In 1997, REAP Food Group was founded by a diverse group of academics, elected officials and citizens who were concerned about food issues and interested in fostering a strong local, sustainable food environment. Since then, REAP has grown from a volunteer-led organization to a staff of six. REAP’s Farm to School, Farm to Business and Farm Fresh Atlas programs are helping more local food reach schools, restaurants, healthcare facilities, and individual consumers throughout Southern Wisconsin.
Farm Fresh Atlas
In 2002, REAP’s first Farm Fresh Atlas was published with 50 farms and 11 farmers’ markets. Over the years, REAP facilitated the creation of Atlases in five regions throughout the state of Wisconsin. Today, Wisconsin’s Farm Fresh Atlases reach over 395,000 consumers throughout the state and serve as an important link between residents, visitors and sources of local food.
“Markets for sustainably produced crops such as berries, maple syrup and other fresh fruit and vegetables are not well developed in this region. From our experience, the Farm Fresh Atlas has served as the primary point of access to local food for many consumers, restaurants, and schools engaged in purchasing these products.” -KatrinaBecker, Farmer, Stoney Acres Farm (Athens, WI)
REAP’s 2016 Southern Wisconsin edition of the Farm Fresh Atlas includes 103 farms, 59 farmers’ markets, 46 restaurants, and 35 local businesses.
Farm to School
REAP’s Farm to School program brings fresh, local food to children, establishing reliable markets for local farms using sustainable agriculture practices, and providing hands-on education in Madison classrooms. Transforming school lunch is a slow and challenging business, especially in a centralized kitchen system created to decrease costs and by default pull kitchens out of individual schools. But REAP is finally breaking through, and in 2015 it formed an official partnership with the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) called the “MMSD Farm to School Project: Great Food, Great Schools.”
“My dream is that kids eat local vegetables every day at school and know how and where they are grown,” REAP’s Farm to School Director Natasha Smith says. In 2015, 55,620 pounds of local food reached 25,000 Madison students. REAP helped the district purchase new slicing and peeling equipment this summer, with the goal of serving 100,000 pounds of local food via school lunches and REAP’s weekly snack program during the 2016-17 school year. A big kick-off to this work will take place in October, when REAP will help MMSD celebrate Farm to School month.
“REAP has really been there to support change,” says MMSD Food and Nutrition Director Steve Youngbauer. “They’ve been a great partner with everything from educating kids, talking with principals and teachers. They’ve been a very positive force in the district.”
Supporting and fostering relationships with local farmers is key. “Farm to School starts at the farm,” says Chris Blakeney of Amazing Grace Family Farm. “There is a very short amount of time between picking and eating, which means there is a much more robust flavor to the produce. It only travels a hundred miles versus thousands of miles.”
At a garden bar installation assembly this spring at Lindbergh Elementary School on the north side of Madison, kids literally cheered for Snug Haven’s frost-sweetened spinach.
Every year, over a thousand Madison students receive REAP’s farm to school lessons in sustainability, nutrition and agriculture. They learn about the nutrient cycle, plant parts, composting and get to hold an “alien head” (giant kohlrabi) before biting into local kohlrabi sticks.
REAP also offers Chef in the Classroom programs at Sherman Middle School and East High Schools where students get hands-on culinary training from some of Madison’s best chefs.
“It’s so rewarding when a middle school student who’s never even heard of kale, is able to make kale chips in class and say, ‘Wow, this tastes better than potato chips.’ That’s a win for future generations of cooks and local farmers,” said one of the program’s chefs.
Farm to Business
In 2007, REAP started the Buy Fresh Buy Local program in Southern Wisconsin to facilitate stronger connections between farmers and local chefs and business owners. The Buy Fresh Buy Local program rewards chefs and businesses who support local farmers. The 46 restaurant partners, four retail partners, and six institutions supported over 300 local farms in 2015 with millions of dollars of purchases going straight to the local farming community. With the help of REAP, UW Health officially committed to a local and sustainable food purchasing policy, transforming how it sources food for patient and staff meals.
“We purchase locally because, like REAP, we are passionate about building a local food economy and infrastructure,” says Chef Patrick DePula of Salvatore’s Tomato Pies. “The staff at REAP have been incredibly helpful connecting us with this community.”
Several producers and restaurants have made lasting commitments to REAP over the past few years. RP’s Pasta donates 5% of sales from frozen ravioli stuffed with local vegetables and cheeses to REAP. RP’s owner Peter Robertson says donating to REAP shows their sustained commitment to investing in the local food system and hopes other companies will join them. “This is about continuing to create great awareness about farmers and local products with a multi-faceted message, in a way that I hope gains a lot of ground,” says Robertson. Look for RP’s ravioli in the freezer section of Willy Street Co-op.
As REAP celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2017, it reflects on the trials and successes of the farm to school and farm to plate movements in Southern Wisconsin. What will the next 20 years look like?
“Food is a basic right,” says REAP’s Executive Director Miriam Grunes. “We hope that more community members, no matter where they live, work or play, can experience the taste of fresh, local foods. We have worked hard to reach kids and help them develop healthy eating habits. As we move forward, we are committed to addressing access and equity issues along the spectrum of the food system—from the farm to our neighborhoods.”
To support REAP’s work, sign up for the bi-weekly e-newsletter at reapfoodgroup.org. REAP is always in need of volunteers, interns, and dedicated local food ambassadors.
“We want to thank all of the people, organizations, farms, restaurants, businesses and others who have supported us for the past 19 years,” says Grunes. “As we continue to fight for a healthful, sustainable and just local food system, we need to continue to work as a community.”