Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch, a project of the REAP Food Group, is a farm-to-school program based in Madison, Wis., that works to bring more fresh, locally produced foods to students through the classroom and the lunchroom. Since its inception in 2002, Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch has worked with the school food services in Madison and surrounding school districts to purchase food from local producers.
Since children learn best by doing, our approach has been to create hands-on (and mouths-on) activities for them to wrap their senses around. Classroom and lunchroom tastings, farmer-led classroom activities, school garden experiences, and field trips to farms give students an opportunity to re-educate their palates and connect to the source of their food.
Many argue that young people won’t eat fresh vegetables, but when students are actively engaged, either by growing and harvesting the food themselves or gaining a better understanding of the story behind the food, most of them become eager eaters. Bringing in a variety of local tomatoes or apples and conducting a classroom tasting activity is one simple way to introduce students to a wider variety of foods.
Barb Perkins, farmer at Vermont Valley Farm near Blue Mounds, Wis., and one of Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch’s “farmer educators,” inspires 2nd graders by leading them through the Vegetable Harvest Game. In this classroom activity each student receives an index card containing the name and picture of a vegetable as well as the seed it comes from. Farmer Barb leads a discussion with the students about the many responsibilities she has as a farmer — preparing soil, planting, watering, weeding, and harvesting — to bring the food she grows from seed to harvest. In turn each student “farmer” comes out to the “field” (a tablecloth spread on a table covered with various vegetables) to “harvest” the vegetable represented on his or her card. When all the vegetables are harvested, students exclaim about how rutabagas and carrots can grow from such tiny seeds or why garlic cloves or potato chunks are on the index cards rather than seeds. The lesson ends with a snack that may include the familiar carrot sticks but perhaps also daikon radish, kohlrabi, or sweet potato sticks.
It’s sometimes difficult to find leftover snacks after class. Creating healthy eating habits in young people requires patience and repetition. And context makes a big difference. Presenting a new item on a plastic-wrapped tray during the 20-minute minimally supervised lunch periods when thoughts of recess compete with hungry stomachs is a more challenging prospect.
How About That Lunch?
Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch learned early on in its work with the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) food service just how challenging it would be to incorporate fresh, locally produced foods into the school lunches. These challenges include the structure of federal subsidies for commodity foods, seasonality, and the understandable demand for convenient foods during school lunch preparation.
MMSD provides school lunches for all 43 schools through one centralized kitchen facility. The staff assembles the lunches into packages, chills them, and trucks them to each school the next morning where the “hot pack” is re-heated in the school’s oven and then served to students. This facility and the staff that run it are able to create and deliver 15,000 meals each school day to all the schools in the district — on a budget of only $0.68 per meal for the food.
Despite the challenges involved with changing lunches, Wisconsin Home-grown Lunch worked in conjunction with the district’s food service to create new menus and to source the local foods. These new menus were tested at three elementary pilot schools. One of these new meals, a chicken-vegetable fajita wrap with a sweet potato muffin and an apple, was offered districtwide to 6,500 elementary students in November 2004. For this one meal, the food service staff took on the extra work of shredding 100 pounds of spinach, cabbage, carrots, and turnips for the vegetable mix and cooking, peeling, and mashing more than 400 pounds of sweet potatoes to use in the muffins.
No small task for a food service operating on a very tight budget. And by the end of last year it became clear we wouldn’t be able to include local foods in the lunches unless they could be delivered “food service ready” (shredded, cooked/mashed, etc.).
This was a problem since there was no one providing the fresh-cut produce that was needed for the schools. Fortunately, right about this same time, a local grocery cooperative, Williamson Street Grocery Cooperative, was building an off-site kitchen to expand its deli operation. The co-op partnered with Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch and has sold the school district shredded carrot, cooked sweet potato, and diced rhubarb for muffins and salad mix for pilot school picnics.
Creating food system change where young people have access to healthy foods and are encouraged to try new foods takes a broad community effort. And it will be a slow, deliberate process. But it’s worth it.