The Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch project inaugurated a farm-to-school initiative in the Madison Metropolitan School District. Support and advisory structures were developed and firm relationships between farmers, food service staff, school staff, and project personnel were established. An extensive set of educational activities was introduced to three pilot schools. Locally sourced products were introduced into a limited number of special meals, but such arrangements have not been institutionalized. Structural obstacles to development of the institutional market for local farmers were identified, especially the lack of processing capacity. These constraints are now being addressed through an extension of the project.
In the past few years, farm-to-school programs have emerged as an innovative vehicle for simultaneously enhancing public understanding of the importance of agricultural sustainability and for improving the profitability of sustainable producers. Schools are key sites at which healthy eating behavior can be modeled and at which students can learn the wider social and environmental implications of their food choices. By bringing locally, sustainably produced vegetables into school cafeterias, “farm-to-school” programs enhance the quality and healthfulness of school lunches while providing a market for local farmers. More than 400 school districts throughout the United States are currently engaged in farm-to-school activities of one kind or another. There are many constraints on achieving the goals of such projects. However, over time and with persistence, creative strategies for dealing with obstacles and challenges are being elaborated. The experience of Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch contributes to the set of resources available for the further development of farm-to-school programs nationally.
A variety of factors were involved in catalyzing our decision to pursue a farm-to-school project in Madison. First, the local non-profit community organization REAP (Research, Education, Action, and Policy on Food Group) was looking for areas in which to expand its activity after undertaking several other successful projects. A number of REAP members had school age children and had become aware of farm-to-school programs in other parts of the country. A second factor was the material example of another SARE-funded project at the University of Wisconsin (UW). The “College Food Project” had successfully established a market for local, sustainable farmers in the dining halls of the UW. It appeared that a similar program might be undertaken in the K-12 school system. A third factor was the close relationship between REAP and several UW faculty. Faculty expertise in grant writing and research could be effectively married to the energy and commitment of local citizens. A fourth factor was the extensive production of sustainable foods in the area and especially the existence of a marketing cooperative of organic farmers. The production capacity and delivery infrastructure was in place and farmers were interested in tapping the institutional market. A fifth factor was the receptivity of both the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) administration and the MMSD food service director to the prospect of a project. Finally, while a good many farm-to-school projects had been inaugurated on both coasts, few had been initiated in the Midwest. There was a need to develop a specifically Midwestern model for farm-to-school initiatives.
A key decision in developing our proposal was the choice to focus our efforts on public elementary schools in the Madison Metropolitan School district. MMSD is a large district, comprising some 45 schools in which over 15,000 meals are served everyday. As such, the food service is highly industrialized and routinized and is subject to substantial budgetary constraints. We could have sought partnerships with smaller school districts in other municipalities or with private schools with more financial resources and flexibility in production arrangements. We nevertheless decided to go with MMSD for two main reasons. First, as citizen advocates and University based researchers, we felt that Madison is our own place and that we could most effectively cultivate local relationships and maximize our direct involvement if we focused our efforts where we live and work. Second, equity considerations influenced our commitment to public schools. The sustainable foods movement generally has tended to neglect lower income populations. The provision of quality, sustainably produced foods to all segments of the population can be realistically implemented through public school cafeterias.
Our decision to work at the elementary school level also related to considerations of equity. In many public school food service operations, students experience different meal opportunities based on their age. In Madison, elementary students have only one meal choice offered at school: the pre-packed “hot lunch,” which is available for free or at a reduced price for those who qualify. Middle school and high school students are offered the “hot lunch” as well, but also may select a wide variety of a la carte items not available for free or at reduced prices. Thus, while the soups, salads, and other a la carte choices served to older students may be more conducive to utilizing local and seasonal produce, they failed to meet the equity goals we were striving for. Also, elementary schools were chosen in the hopes that reaching children at a young age with positive experiences related to local food might have a lasting impact on food choices and health.
In the context of the foregoing sets of factors, we developed a request to the NCR-SARE program for funds to implement the proposed project, “Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch: Piloting a Midwestern Model for Farm-to-School Initiatives.” REAP and the UW’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems are the principal participating institutions. Homegrown Wisconsin cooperative and the MMSD food service are key partners. Our overarching goal was to increase the amount of locally grown foods served in the MMSD cafeterias while also providing meaningful educational opportunities for students.
- Establish a Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch program linking the classroom and the cafeteria in order to educate the children for sustainable consumption.
Establish a Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch program linking the classroom and the cafeteria in order to develop a market for locally sourced foodstuffs in the MMSD food service.
Identify and understand the interaction of both the opportunities and constraints (economic, social, technical, regulatory, environmental) affecting the marketing of locally produced foods for use in MMSD institutions
Create an understanding of the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch program and associated issues in the Madison community generally and among school staff, PTOs, and parents of school age children in particular.
Develop an effective mechanism for brokering local foodstuffs from multiple sources and marketing to the MMSD food service.
Enhance solidarity and cooperation among organizations participating in the project and develop a cadre of informed, competent individuals committed to working within their organizations in sustained community advocacy to expand and develop the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch program.
Project Structure and Philosophy. SARE funds supported a Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch (WHL) Coordinator as a full time staff position. The project’s principal investigator, a UW faculty member and REAP board member, was able to allocate about 20% of his time to WHL and in addition was able to underwrite the half time participation of a graduate research assistant who was completing a masters degree in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning. These three persons constituted the core staff of the program.
Farm-to-school projects are exceedingly complex socially, inasmuch as they involve not simply the target populations (school children, farmers, school food service staff) but also a wide variety of people and administrative bodies who also have an interest in or might be affected by project activities (school board, PTO, parents, teachers, principals, school kitchen and custodial staff). In order to help the WHL staff make the best decisions possible in this complex and unfamiliar environment, an Advisory Committee was created, comprising a dozen individuals representing the farm, food system advocacy, and education communities. Staff met with the Advisory Committee at least twice per year over the course of the project. The Advisory Committee provided essential feedback and guidance and acted as the project’s advocate to school district and municipal decision-makers.
In order to maintain and incorporate the energy of REAP’s members, a “Farm-to-school Committee” was created within REAP. That committee was comprised of parents and food activists. This committee gave the general citizenry an opportunity to have their voices heard and provided a critical vehicle for recruitment of the many volunteers needed to implement WHL programs. This committee met monthly for most of the project’s life and provided perspectives and feedback that were different from, but no less valuable than, those provided by the Advisory Committee.
Throughout the project, staff has consciously maintained a thoroughly participatory and inclusive orientation to its work. The issue of food and children in the public schools has the potential to be quite divisive along a whole range of fault lines. The MMSD food service had previous experience with a variety of external initiatives intended to alter the way Madison’s school children are fed. These initiatives did not take into account the objective conditions facing the school system, had little follow up, and were disruptive rather than constructive. A key strategy for WHL was to foster the emergence of professional, congenial, trusting, and responsive relationships between the farmers of Home Grown Wisconsin cooperative, the staff of the school district’s food service, the volunteers of the REAP Food Group, and the teachers, principals, parents and students of Madison’s schools. Staff felt that the degree of success its activities achieved would be largely a function of the quality of these relationships. WHL has pursued a non-confrontational, cooperative, highly consultative approach and has proceeded at a pace no faster than any party was willing or able to move.
Understanding Food Service Operations. Developing an adequate understanding of objective conditions was essential to effective design of project activities. Initially, staff had little understanding of food service operations or of classroom organization and teaching. Our first task was therefore to undertake research to familiarize ourselves with these areas.
We found that the MMSD food service is characteristic of many large-scale school food services. It utilizes a centralized production and distribution facility, producing approximately 18,000 meals a day (3.2 million per year), which are distributed in trucks to the 45 schools in the district. The absence of in-school kitchen facilities and the journey by truck requires meals to be “pre-packed” in disposable aluminum or plastic containers (usually one “hot pack” and one “cold pack” per meal). These “pre-packs” are compiled and sealed on an assembly line each morning, trucked to schools, reheated as needed, and handed out in school cafeterias for students to unwrap, eat, and dispose of during their short lunch period. During lunch, they are largely unsupervised by teachers, who take advantage of a well-deserved (and contractually agreed upon) break during the lunch period.
The menu for MMSD elementary schools is structured on a three-week cycle, and meets federal standards for nutrition on a weekly average of meals. The MMSD food service is accustomed to trialing one new or holiday menu item per 3 week period, and will regularly introduce novel items to determine whether or not to incorporate the new offering into the menu cycle in the place of a less popular meal. Popularity of a meal – and there fore its acceptability to the food service – is determined mostly by participation (purchase) rates. Monthly meal menus are distributed to every student’s family and meals can be individually selected. The menus sometimes include carefully thought out “marketing messages” for specific days (i.e., “Green Bay Packer Peas and Corn”).
Aside from staffing costs for 140 employees (6 of whom are managers) the food service operates on a budget separate from other school district operations. It operates on an annual budget of approximately $3 million. For revenue, the food service relies on money from students who pay a full or reduced price for lunches, purchases of a la carte items by middle and high school students and teachers, and federal reimbursements received for each “hot lunch” served. Increased participation in the lunch means increased revenues. In short, the food service must try to serve what students will buy, with the limited amount of money and time with which to do so. The cost of each “hot lunch” incurred by the food service must average approximately $0.68 per meal. If a more expensive meal is quite popular, the food service can continue to serve it, offsetting its cost on other days with meals that are less expensive to produce.
Like all school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the MMSD food service relies heavily on USDA commodity foods, which can be purchased at rates far cheaper than market prices. USDA Commodities are largely non-perishable items, but also include processed meat and dairy products, as well as such convenient ready-to-eat products such as French toast sticks and peanut butter and jelly pockets. Aside from this pool of products, the food service has a contractual agreement with SYSCO Foods in Baraboo WI, which specifies that the MMSD food service will purchase 80% of its market priced products through SYSCO. Outside of this, the food service currently purchases products from a handful of other vendors, including in-season apples (directly from an orchard near Oregon, WI), and milk by contract through WI-based Golden Guernsey, which also provides on-site refrigeration for milk.
In-school facilities vary tremendously. Some elementary schools have small basic kitchens and dedicated lunchrooms, reminiscent of the days lunch was prepared and served by hand in each school. Others have only a cooler for milk, the capacity to reheat pre-packed meals, and tightly scheduled lunchrooms also used for physical education, school assemblies, etc. Middle schools and high schools generally have the capacity to do some of their own food preparation, and more flexibility to serve salad bars and other a la carte items. Very few schools have kitchens capable of anything more than reheating foods. Madison’s schools were historically neighborhood based and children went home for lunch or brought sack lunches. As the school system expanded and offered hot lunches a decision was made to develop a centralized kitchen facility rather than to upgrade the facilities in each school.
The research conducted over the first year of the project taught us a great deal about the challenges we were facing. In particular, we came to understand that we were confronted by five very substantial obstacles.
First, the technical scale at which the MMSD food service operates is profoundly constraining. Organizing production around a central facility tightly couples a wide variety of food service features to a rigid template that is very difficult to alter. All menu items must conform to the dual hot pack/cold pack/reheating system and all transportation and service infrastructure (racks, carts, truck interiors, trays, etc.) is compatible with a limited set of physical parameters. Any new food item must conform to the requirements of these pre-existing technical standards.
Second, almost no cooking is actually done, even at the centralized kitchen facility. With the exceptions of some baking and some soup preparation, meals are largely compiled from ready to eat, pre-packaged components. The task of food service labor is to compile efficiently, not to cook well. Food service workers are not cooks and are not trained as cooks.
Third, we were quite surprised to discover that only three types of fresh produce are served in MMSD elementary schools: broccoli florets, “baby” carrots, and shredded lettuce. Further, this narrow range of fresh produce is used in very limited quantities. The food service spends only about $28,000 per year on fresh vegetables. This is little more than $1 per year per student.
Fourth, we discovered that the food service will not allocate more than minimal labor time to shredding, slicing, dicing, and peeling of fresh produce. Labor costs are the single largest cost for the food service and such manual labor as is necessary for minimal processing of fresh vegetables is regarded as unnecessarily costly. Further, food service workers themselves are not accustomed to such operations and managers believe that they would be resistant to being required to perform more than a minimal amount of such work. The food service now receives what fresh vegetables it uses in ready-to-use form and this requirement is quite firm.
Fifth, we found that a combination of state regulation and teachers’ union work rules have resulted in a school lunch period that is only twenty minutes in length and often effectively even less than that. The brevity of the lunch period precludes a “salad bar” (and soup bar) approach to incorporating local produce because children cannot move through the salad/soup bar line sufficiently quickly. It also reduces the amount of time that can be used to educate children about food and makes for a meal experience that reinforces “fast food” attitudes and behaviors.
It would be hard to overstate the degree to which we have struggled with these overarching obstacles in shaping the way we have designed and implemented project activities.
Educational Activities. Though many of the WHL project team and REAP Farm-to-school committee members are parents of MMSD children, few had a detailed understanding of the school and classroom environment and how it would interface with meal provision. Our assumption was that in-school education would facilitate children’s acceptance of new food items and practices in the lunchroom. It was also the belief of the MMSD food service staff that children would not eat fresh vegetables without educational priming, and they were very supportive of in-classroom efforts. We needed to try out various educational activities and to assess their utility. We also needed some way of developing criteria for selecting project pilot schools from among the 30 MMSD elementary schools. We therefore decided to immediately engage in some intensive learning ourselves through immersion in the schools.
As the project got under way in fall of 2003, WHL staff contacted all of Madison’s elementary schools and offered a vegetable tasting/learning activity to any K-5 teacher who wanted it. We followed this up with offers of additional in-class activities with visiting farmers who talked about their work and with the County’s recycling coordinator who introduced students to worm bins. Ultimately, WHL staff, volunteers, and farmers visited 22 elementary schools and reached over 3,300 students with fruit and vegetable tastings and other educational activities. These highly successful ventures gave WHL staff and volunteers invaluable experience in dealing with children, teachers, administrators, and school procedures. The highly successful in-class activities became the template for the project’s educational initiatives.
Our initial foray into the schools also provided us with a method for selecting our pilot schools. We chose our pilot schools on the basis of demonstrated interest by teachers (measured by how many requests per school we had received for tastings/activities), demonstrated interest by principals, demonstrated interest by parents, and degree of need measured by the socioeconomic characteristics of school populations. We selected three candidate pilot schools which differed from each other on geographic location, level of parent involvement, and student demographics. We met with the principals of these candidate schools and outlined the project to them. The principals consulted with their staffs. All three of our candidate pilot schools asked to participate in the WHL initiative with the understanding that many aspects of the project could be shaped uniquely by each school community.
Our expectations of pilot schools were that they would make a commitment to our process (since outcomes were not determinate), establish a farm-to-school committee composed of teachers and staff that would partner with WHL staff in implementing activities, and commitment to trial a lunchroom component of the project. In consultation with the principals, a “site coordinator” drawn from teachers or staff was selected at each school. In return for a modest stipend, each site coordinator is expected to chair their respective farm-to-school committee and provide overall leadership at their site. Site coordinators have performed variably but are a critical vehicle in obtaining “buy in” from the school community and in reducing the responsibilities of WHL staff.
A variety of educational activities were implemented in each of our pilot schools. Fresh vegetable tastings are a core component of these efforts. The project also provided for each school to have its own farmer, drawn from among the most community-oriented of the Madison area’s many Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms. The farmers provide “farmer in the classroom” education that brings the realities of food production to children’s minds and mouths. More importantly, their farms provide a site for field trips and the critical opportunity for students to experience the vegetables they eat in the overarching context of production and the environment. Field trips to “their” farms are highlights of the school year for many students. The children also learn how plants grow and all students in three of our pilot schools transplant a cherry tomato plant which they take home at the end of the year. WHL staff assisted teachers with a variety of curricular activities from “commodity chain” exercises to worm bins to creation of a school garden.
Implementing a Homegrown Lunch. The educational activities that were undertaken and the close relationships with local farmers that were established were instrumental in enhancing the receptivity of students to the development of new, locally-sourced school meals which have been the core undertaking of the project.
When we discovered that the food service used almost no fresh vegetables as a component of its lunches, we needed to determine a strategy for increasing utilization. We chose to pursue development of entire meals based on locally available produce. We felt that this would enable us to provide meals that were distinguishable in their entirety from conventional offerings and would provide the maximum amount of contrast with existing meals. Since broccoli florets, “baby” carrots, and shredded lettuce were the only fresh vegetables included in food service lunches, WHL staff worked with the food service to develop menus incorporating an expanded range of foodstuffs.
This was no small task, and not one for which WHL staff had been trained or prepared. The food service constructs its meals around a weekly average nutritional target. All ingredients have to be assessed for nutritional content and amounts finely calculated to produce the requisite weekly target. Further, all ingredients must fit within food service parameters for cost, reheating time, transportability, and conformity to pre-pack characteristics (size, liquidity, etc.), not to mention the palatability of the food itself. Working with the food service, WHL staff was able to develop a variety of potential menu items including rhubarb muffins, sweet potato muffins, salad mix, yogurt/cream cheese/dill sauce, vegetarian chili, cranberry cookies, baked potatoes. These items all required deviation from food service’s established operations and labor allocations. The food service was flexible in agreeing to trial some special meal preparation outside of its normal procedures.
After some seven months of research, relationship development, planning, and preparatory work, the project kicked off its meal program with picnic lunches at its three pilot schools. Muffins containing local rhubarb and a locally sourced spring salad mix highlighted the menu. The food was well received by the kids, pilot school staff felt themselves part of a concrete initiative, and the meal received extensive coverage in the media.
When school resumed in fall of 2003, arrangements had been made for a series of WHL meals throughout the academic year. In October, we undertook a Harvest Festival meal in all three pilot schools. This meal consisted of a locally produced tortilla wrap containing local cabbage, carrots, and spinach with a sauce made of local yogurt and dill and a regionally sourced cream cheese. Complementing the wrap was a vegetarian chili and cranberry cookies. We prepared the students for the meal through in-class tastings and an all-school assembly featuring a folk singer who sang about the food and demonstrated the wrap assembly. The schools provided extra time for the lunch period, and the food service allowed the meal to be served cafeteria style by volunteers rather than in its accustomed pre-packs.
The Harvest Festival Meal was followed in April 2004 by a set of evening meals in which each pilot school’s farm-to-school committee took the lead in establishing a theme. For these meals we were able to obtain the assistance of the Madison Area Technical College’s Culinary Arts Program for both menu planning and cooking. One school chose a Mardi Gras theme and incorporated sweet potato pie and collard greens into its meal. The sweet potatoes and greens were provided by the Rainbow Farmers Cooperative which sourced them counter-seasonally from farmers in the southern Midwest. The other two schools enjoyed the local salad mix with a local squash bisque. These meals were again complemented by spring picnics featuring local apples, a locally sourced salad mix, and rhubarb muffins.
As our SARE project approached its termination date in October, 2004, the food service was planning to trial the tortilla wrap meal at all 30 elementary schools in MMSD. Further, the food service had decided to trial a new local baked potato and vegetarian chili meal in the three WHL pilot schools.
In some areas, the results of this project have been most satisfactory. We have manifestly succeeded in establishing a Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch program whose educational component effectively moves children toward understanding of the food system and models informed, sustainable, healthy eating. We have a substantial presence in the pilot schools and teachers and administrative staff alike welcome our activities and appreciate the curricular emphasis that the project brings to the classroom. We have learned that we can facilitate the acceptance and consumption of fresh vegetables by elementary school children. We have established patterns of activity and practice that can be continued.
Our research activities have identified – only too well in some cases – the interaction of both the opportunities and constraints affecting the marketing of locally produced foods for use in MMSD institutions. As summarized and detailed in this report, we understand pretty well where we are now and where we need to get to. This understanding should allow us to continue our work and to orient it in ways that move us toward the goal of creating a robust market for locally produced fresh vegetables in the schools.
We have succeeded in creating an understanding of the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch program and its objectives among a wide variety of Madison’s publics and constituencies. We have received extensive and positive coverage of WHL project operations and activities in print, television, and radio outlets. We have established a climate of awareness in which our farm-to-school efforts are widely recognized and are regarded as an innovative and effective initiative.
Finally, our project succeeded in enhancing solidarity and cooperation among organizations participating in the project. Though we have confronted quite challenging obstacles, we continue to be committed not only to working together, but to bringing new partners into the work. Through the project we have developed a cadre of informed, competent individuals who intend to engage in sustained community advocacy to expand the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch program.
However, we have not been able to link the classroom and the cafeteria as we had intended. In particular, we have not so far succeeded in our core objective of developing a consistent market for locally sourced foodstuffs in the MMSD food service. There are some substantial structural reasons for this that will be challenging to overcome.
The “squeeze” on the lunch period and its implications for the food served has been one of our most unexpected findings. Due to extreme pressures to maximize classroom time and free up multipurpose cafeterias for other uses within a school day kept as short as possible for budgetary reasons, students have very little time to eat lunch. In fact, state educational standards have set minimum limits on almost everything besides lunchtime, which has made it more susceptible to time pressures. In Madison’s Elementary Schools, students have only 25 minutes outside of the classroom to eat lunch and enjoy a short recess. In the time period they are actually seated in the lunchroom, students must collect and open the plastic sealed pre-packed lunch containers, eat some or all of the contents, and clean up after themselves. Often, anticipation of recess causes students to rush even more quickly through their lunches. This time crunch affects food service decisions about offering “cumbersome” foods such as hot soups (too hot to be safely consumed during the lunch period) and salads (take too much time for kids to eat). In addition, the lack of time for lunch has been consistently cited as a barrier to offering elementary students an opportunity to make choices about the foods they eat in the lunchroom because of the added time in line and extra need for adult assistance. In Madison, we have recognized the length of the lunch as a significant barrier to the utilization of fresh produce, whether as ingredients in soups, or sliced and displayed for students to choose from. Unfortunately, there is currently no prospect of significantly lengthening the lunch hour in MMSD schools and so providing us with more degrees of freedom for meal presentation options.
Similarly, the very scale at which the MMSD food service operates has locked it into certain patterns that will take a major (and expensive) policy shifts to alter. As long as the food service relies on the individualized, pre-pack approach to meal distribution one wonders how much quality can be improved even with use of improved ingredients. Despite the food service’s best intentions, the demands of a small program which transgresses many of its existing practices could not help but appear onerous to many food service staff already pressed by the tight coupling of a large and complex system.
This is not to say that there are not strategies which could be pursued that could greatly expand the MMSD food service market for fresh, local produce. In our future efforts, we will be shifting from the “meal replacement” approach to a “menu item substitution” approach. Since the food service is not now in a position to eliminate pre-packs and lacks the capacity to develop a set of locally sourced, complete meals, we will emphasize the replacement of individual menu items by items incorporating locally sourced products (e.g., sweet potato/rhubarb muffins in place of cupcakes). We will also pursue expansion of fresh produce as part of existing meals (e.g., radishes, turnip sticks, celery, cherry tomatoes, pepper slices, salad mix, etc. in addition to the current inventory of broccoli florets, baby carrots and shredded lettuce).
This strategy is in turn predicated upon filling the critical need for a local processing capacity. Neither the farmers we worked with nor the food service staff are currently equipped to take on the transformation of whole foods into their food service ready counterparts – forms able to be placed in pre-packed school lunches on assembly lines. The food service central kitchen does in fact have much of the necessary equipment for this, and the capacity to chop, dice, slice, and shred limited amounts of product, but cannot scale up labor to match the larger quantities of product utilized for hot lunches. Throughout the project, we observed the extent to which school food service systems from kitchen to cafeteria have evolved away from cooking, food preparation, provision of adequate eating time and supervision in the lunchroom, and the utilization of whole, high quality foods. In all areas, the school lunch program has reduced labor wherever it can and this is most clearly seen in preparation labor. Time for simple fresh vegetable preparation on a large scale hardly exists in the centralized kitchen, though enthusiastic staff went out of their way to make this possible on a few occasions for relatively small volumes of food.
Because meals utilizing locally sourced produce were themselves so difficult to arrange, we were not able to systematically test brokering possibilities with farmers. In an early interview with the MMSD staff person in charge of purchasing, we discovered that, as we had anticipated, it is beneficial to the food service to minimize the number of vendors they work with. From the perspective of the food service, it takes time to cultivate and maintain relationships with new food vendors. To cut down on administrative tasks, ordering and invoicing procedures must be smooth and consistent. Like many school districts, the MMSD school food service operates under a contract which requires them to purchase approximately 80% of their market rate food products through SYSCO, the largest food distributor in the nation. However, the additional 20% is available for local purchasing. It was easy to add Homegrown Wisconsin, our co-op partner, as a vendor for the food service. At least when operating though a co-op, transaction costs appear to present no serious barrier to local purchasing as long as farmers are organized.
Pricing is another matter, however. Home Grown Wisconsin is a local co-op, but most of its sales are in high quality, organic produce for high-end restaurants in Chicago. The MMSD food service, trying to keep food costs to $.68 per meal, needed to buy at prices considerably lower than the Home Grown co-op farmers were accustomed to receiving. With subsidies from grant money and the willingness of food service staff to perform labor they would not customarily do, a modest flow of product from Home Grown to school children was made possible during the WHL special meals. However, with regard to Home Grown Wisconsin Cooperative functioning at its current scale and business focus, opportunities to access the MMSD food service market are limited. For local purchasing to succeed, another set of farmers will likely need to be brought into the equation. There are a large number of farmers producing vegetables in the area who are either not organic producers or who, for various reasons, are willing to accept somewhat lower prices for their product. Such producers will need to be organized.
There are many lessons that can be taken from the WHL experience and applied to other initiatives. For those intending to start a farm-to-school program, we would suggest the following considerations:
Have your act together before approaching the school district. The WHL project was conceived in 2001 by a group of interested citizens involved in REAP. Nearly a year of regular meetings, discussion, and research into existing farm-to-school programs preceded the group’s ability to firmly establish priorities and a set of initial goals and tasks. Only after the group had cleared these initial hurdles was it possible to be taken seriously by the food service and to write an effective grant proposal. The MMSD food service director subsequently supplied a sincere letter of support as part of the SARE grant application, strengthening this critical partnership from the very beginning.
The food service director’s attitude is critical. Throughout our research and our own experience perhaps the clearest result has been the almost invariably determinate role played by the food service director. If the director does not want the project, it will fail. If the food service director is indifferent to the project it will most likely fail. If the food service director is enthusiastic about the project there is a good chance of progress.
Proceed slowly, transparently, and inclusively. Ultimately, the first phase of any farm-to-school initiative must be about developing solid working relationships. Bringing the necessary partners and constituents to the table requires tact and authentic respect for the varied perspectives, constraints and professional boundaries that will be encountered. Our WHL motto has been, “Don’t move faster than any partner is willing or able to go.” This simple survival based model fosters trust, respect and deeper understanding of all components, allows time for relationships to solidify and may be an essential ingredient in creating lasting and meaningful change in any system. Similarly, clear and well timed communications provide all players with the information they need to be effective and thus feel a sense of inclusion and accomplishment. WHL project staff explained the goals of our project and listened to the reactions and advice of the food service staff, curriculum directors for the school district, and others. By committing to cooperation and exploring possibilities within existing frameworks, the project gained legitimacy and were able to refine our procedures and methods.
Understand your school food service. Perhaps most important in the spectrum of project partners is the school food service director and key personnel. Ultimately they are responsible for providing the school meal programs and any changes or additions to the program must be administered through them. The school food service industry is complex, heavily regulated and often rigid in a driving economic need to be highly efficient. Taking the time to fully understand your school food service’s set-up, systems, economics and day to day realities will over time not only result in more informed project decisions, but will also foster the respect and cooperation of the food service personnel themselves. School food services have historically been the recipients of negative feedback and impulsive demands from dissatisfied staff, students and parents and may be prone to an initial defensive or dismissive attitude toward a proposed farm-to-school initiative fearing another negative onslaught. Taking meaningful steps to understand the constraints within which these professionals work and allowing them to lead in their area of expertise will build trust and the kind of working relationships where goals and solutions are conceived as a team. For the WHL, a focus on positive public relations and community acknowledgement has also bolstered this important relationship, fostering a growing sense of accomplishment and providing the food service employees with the credit they often deserve, though rarely receive.
Understand your farming community. Willing, interested and experienced local producers are the next critical piece of the farm-to-school equation. Building demand within the food service is only half of the task. As appropriate, local agricultural products are identified to supply the school food service, growers must be identified to supply it in adequate quantity, quality, as consistently as possible and at price that suits both buyer and seller. This final requirement – price – may prove the most difficult to negotiate. Many of the small to middle-sized, sustainably minded producers attracted by or approached by farm-to-school projects tend to specialize in capturing the local, niche and direct markets, such as farmers markets, CSA or direct sales to gourmet restaurants. The overriding benefit of these direct markets include relatively low volumes sold for premium prices, especially for certified organic products, along with the absence of middle players, such as wholesalers requiring a cut in profits. However, as institutions such as schools, universities and hospitals come under increased pressure to provide higher quality, fresher and more nutritious foods for health reasons and local products in response to community pressure, new opportunities emerge that were not visible or available to local producers before. In most urban and even rural agricultural areas the institutional market is virtually untapped by local producers, opening up new economic opportunities for growers and processors who are willing to pioneer the necessary relationships and meet new market demands.
Consider the processing. For the WHL project, a critical missing link has been the processing. Many institutional food services receive the vast majority of their fresh produce in a minimally processed form (washed, chopped and bagged). This reality must be accommodated. Few farmers or farm groups are in a position to provide this service. Most processors are too large to undertake processing relatively small amounts of product at a price that farmers or food services find palatable. This presents a significant organizational hurdle for any farm-to-school project, but its solution may ultimately hold the opportunity to access a wider institutional market.
Consider starting small. An important consideration at an early stage of planning may be the size of the school district to engage. In the experience of the WHL project, the sheer scale at which the MMSD food service operates creates severe structural obstacles. Smaller school district food services seem to provide increased flexibility in terms of labor and food preparation. Small, rural school districts may enjoy an additional sense of commitment to purchasing from local farmers in the community. Both of these attributes may be significant in the long term, requiring less facilitation and thus less outside funding. Larger urban districts, like Madison’s, have generally moved to a centralized facility model which permits few degrees of freedom. The ratio of food service personnel to students in this highly efficient model is extremely low. Smaller districts, however, tend to maintain kitchens in each school as the most economical approach. In these school districts, where on site labor is still the norm, utilizing whole, fresh produce may not present a significant barrier as in the larger districts.
Include a strong educational component. For WHL, an early focus on developing a strong and meaningful educational component within the school district has now become the backbone of the project. WHL partners and constituents, from the food service personnel to the parents and teachers involved recognize and support the importance of connecting classroom education with the student’s eating experiences. This component has proven so necessary and effective that “Linking the Land with the Lunchroom” has become the project’s introductory phrase. A strong educational component is also extremely useful as an outreach tool, accessing parents through built in “take-home messages” as well as the wider community through media coverage of special events, field trips and other experiential activities. Whenever possible, activities should include experientially-based components: tasting a wide variety of fresh produce, visiting farms, handling vegetables.
The Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch project has succeeded in realizing most of the desired outcomes listed in its original proposal to SARE. A Homegrown Lunch program has been initiated in the MMSD system. We now understand quite well the interaction of opportunities and constraints affecting the marketing of local foods to the MMSD food service. We have created a broad awareness of the Homegrown Lunch program in the school system, among parents, among school staff, and among the community at large. Most importantly, we have established professional, congenial, trusting, and responsive relationships between the staff of the Madison Metropolitan School District’s “Eatery” food service, the volunteers of REAP, local farmers, WHL project personnel.
In sum, although we have not yet realized one of our core outcomes – the creation of a consistent market for local produce sales to the MMSD – we have nevertheless created the conditions for continuing our efforts to ultimately achieve that goal. Our pilot schools wish to continue the program. We have received requests from additional schools to bring them in to the project. The MMSD school board supports our work. The Madison community is aware and supportive of the project. The MMSD food service is willing to continue working with us. Farmers remain interested in the market potential of schools. Indeed, we have even added to the number of partners involved in the project. The Madison Area Technical College’s Culinary Arts program has begun to work with us. Most significantly, the Williamson Street Grocery Cooperative has joined our initiative and will be playing a key role in overcoming one of the project’s key constraints by providing vegetable processing services for the project.
Given the positive climate that the project has created in Madison, the evident promise of a farm-to-school program, and the growing set of institutions and individuals committed to making WHL work, a critical impact of our work was the decision of our partners to seek funds to continue the project. A second SARE proposal was written, submitted, and funded. WHL has embarked on an extended effort to bring farm and lunchroom together.
More than this, the REAP board has been so energized by the promise of institutional markets generally that it has developed an interest in exploring the potential of county facilities, hospitals, retirement homes, and restaurants as markets for local produce. A pilot project for outreach to such institutions has been developed and submitted for funding to the Wisconsin State Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection.
Unfortunately, the project has so far managed only to facilitate the flow of about $2,500 of local produce into MMSD food service meals. But the potential is very large. The value of the produce purchased for the Harvest Festival tortilla wrap/chili meal at our three pilot schools was $1,300. Were the food service to offer the tortilla/chili meal in its regular menu cycle (each menu is served once very three weeks over a 42 week school year) at all 30 of Madison’s public elementary schools, the district’s annual expenditures on fresh produce would increase by a factor of about seven from $28,000 per year to $181,860 per year.
On this basis, the regional potential for farm-to-school sales could be very large indeed. We have estimated that the market for fresh vegetables in all 76 school districts in the seven-county region surrounding Madison could be worth as much as $2,750,000. There are very good economic reasons for pursuing this work.
Because of the processing and menu development obstacles, we have so far been able only to generate a small amount of product passing from local farmers to the MMSD food service. However, the market potential is considerable and the farmers we have been working with understand the difficulties we have faced. They remain enthusiastic about supplying the institutional market when the structural obstacles we have encountered are overcome. Sales of direct marketed agricultural products in Dane County grew fully 25% between 1997 and 2002. The 2002 Agricultural Census showed that Dane County farmers already account for about $4 million of direct and organic sales. In the Madison area there are many producers who are now principally serving local and regional organic, direct, and fresh markets of various kinds but who are looking to expand their production and link to new market opportunities such as that which a farm-to-school program could provide.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Stouder, Heather, Jack Kloppenburg, and Sara Tedeschi, 2003. The Potential of Public Schools in Madison, Wisconsin, as Markets for Local Fresh Fruits and Vegetables: Assessing the Myths and Realities of Seasonality, Price, Transaction Costs, and Prep Labor. A report prepared for the North Central Initiative on Small Farm Profitability, October.
Areas needing additional study
Over the next two years of the WHL project we propose to deploy what we believe are appropriate and effective responses to the structural challenges we have encountered in the first two years of our work. Each of these responses means bringing a new organizational partner into the project.
First, we will draw upon the resources of the Department of Food Science at the University of Wisconsin and the culinary arts program of the Madison Area Technical College in order to work with the school food service in developing new menus that use not just more fresh produce but a wider variety of items. The food service has a standard procedure for creating and testing new menu items and will incorporate project objectives into that process. Farmers will provide input on what products they can supply in appropriate quantities in designated seasons. Student chefs from the Culinary Arts Program of the Madison Area Technical College and interns from the Dietetics Program of the University of Wisconsin will provide guidance and advice on preparation and nutritional content potential menu items. Prospective new “Homegrown Wisconsin” menu items will be trialed in meals at project pilot schools. WHL will also expand the opportunities for school children to access fresh produce by providing items as in-class snacks. A snack program may hold the opportunity to circumvent many of the food service related constraints.
Second, and most critically, WHL will partner with the Williamson Street Grocery Cooperative to develop an essential processing capacity. The co-op has now opened its own commercial kitchen. The kitchen includes equipment capable of washing, peeling, slicing, dicing, shredding, and packaging fresh produce. The co-op has agreed to buy produce from farmers, process it, and deliver it to MMSD food service. Farmers should be able to supply the school food service with produce in the ready-to-use form it requires early in the 2004-05 school year. Sales to the food service should increase steadily as “Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch” menu items are developed and as expertise in use of the processing equipment is developed.
Third, WHL will partner with the Dane County Farmers’ Market in order to recruit and organize a wider range of farmers to supply the larger volume of product required by the school food service as it extends its “homegrown” offerings. The University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives will provide assistance in helping farmers assess their organizational options. These may include affiliation with a spin-off of Home Grown Wisconsin Cooperative, formation of one or more new cooperatives, or formation of one or more limited liability corporations.
These three areas will be the focus of study in the coming two years. By the end of the project, we expect to have created an organizational and technical infrastructure capable of supplying fresh, ready-to-use product to a school food service whose menus incorporate a steadily enlarging volume of local produce. We will also produce outreach materials and organize seminars that will extend the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch model to farmers and schools throughout the Midwest.