- Fruits: apples
- Vegetables: cabbages, carrots, greens (leafy), tomatoes
- Education and Training: demonstration, display, networking
- Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, cooperatives, community-supported agriculture, market study, value added
- Sustainable Communities: infrastructure analysis, new business opportunities, community development
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.