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Linking the Land and the Lunchroom: Insights for Planners from the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch Farm-to-School Project

January 24, 2004 by Administrator in Winter 2004

By Heather Stouder

A key (and often contradictory) challenge for local food system initiatives is to take a syst ematic approach to move beyond providing local flavor to a privileged few, while ensuring that farmers and food producers receive a fair price for their products. Though addressing only a small piece of this puzzle, the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch Farm-to-School project has embraced this challenge by exploring the possibilities of incorporating locally-grown food products within the Madison Metropolitan School District Foodservice. Despite the “win-win” nature of these projects, many barriers exist between farms and schools, including low budgets and inadequate time and labor for food preparation. These are very important for planners and others to consider at the outset of any farm-to-school initiative.

On the surface, the Madison area food system appears to be quite strong. Featuring the largest farmers market in the nation, several community supported agriculture (CSA) farms serving the metropolitan area, twenty-three community gardens and three retail natural food cooperatives, the Madison area hardly seems to be in need of public policy and planning to strengthen the local food system. Local food and agriculture are quitevisible in and around this city of approximately 200,000 people.

While a diversity of food products from small-scale niche and organic farmers may be enjoyed by those who can afford to purchase them, however, opportunities to eat and identify with such products are not widely available to many others: those who shop at large grocery stores or convenience stores; those who rely on the emergency food system; children who rely on school meals as a major part of the diet. It is this population that the farm-to-school project attempts to reach, and its difficulties illustrate the many difficulties similar projects are likely to face as they reach beyond niche markets.

“Farm-to-School” within the Progressive Planning Agenda

While the corporate global food system operates quite efficiently, the significant market failures within it—hunger, environmental degradation and social inequities—deserve significant attention from planners and policymakers. Independent family farmers and low-income citizens are two groups that face significant burdens within this system. Across the US, efforts to address these inequities frequently involve overlap and coalition-building among several arenas including public health, food security, urban and rural environmental quality, land use/growth management and community-based economic development.

In addition to innovative farmland preservation programs and strategies to improve access to food stores in urban areas, both of which incorporate an obvious spatial component, recent literature focused on planning for food systems includes a call for policies and programs to stimulate the purchase of locally-grown and -produced food products by public institutions such as schools, hospitals, universities and others. The associations between institutional food purchasing patterns, land use and economic development are quite difficult to define spatially, since most institutions purchase from enormous food brokers several steps and usually hundreds of miles removed from the origins of food. Despite the obscurity in this system, the streams of food products flowing into cafeterias originate on real land in real communities, and are grown and processed by real people who often earn exploitative wages. By creating policies and incentives for public institutions to purchase local and sustainably produced foods directly from farmers and farmer cooperatives, the “metabolism” of cities may ultimately become more sustainable and just.

Though perhaps the most challenging among potential institutional customers, public schools—because they are sites where youth of all income levels both learn and eat—should pique the interest of planners who focus on equity and long-term sustainability. Across the US today, farm-to-school initiatives are proliferating as attempts to simultaneously create consistent, viable markets for growers and increase access to fresh, locally-produced foods for children. Farm-to-school initiatives take many forms, and often involve collaborative arrangements between two or more of the following: farmers, non-profit organizations, universities, school district staff and interested citizens. Though I know of none that have originated in a municipal planning department, progressive planners could play an important role in such initiatives.

The Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch Project

Funded by the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program since October 2002, Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch (WHL) is a joint effort of the University of Wisconsin Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems and the non-profit REAP (Research, Education, Action and Policy) Food Group. With one full-time project coordinator, a graduate research assistant and the oversight of a professor heavily involved in the project, WHL relies on partnerships with school foodservice staff, principals and teachers in three pilot elementary schools, volunteers, and a cooperative of local organic vegetable growers to explore possibilities for reaching the following general goals:

  • Increase access to fresh, local produce for Madison school children, beginning in public elementary schools;
  • Build stable markets for area farms and food producers who prioritize ecologically sound growing methods; and
  • Create meaningful educational links between classrooms, lunchrooms and local food and agriculture

I have been involved as a facilitator with the WHL for a year. Reflecting on the year’s work there are five main accomplishments of the project to note. First, the group established positive collaborative relationships with foodservice and school district staff. By committing to respect and cooperation, setting up meetings and exploring possibilities within existing frameworks, the project gained legitimacy and took shape. Support from one of the school district’s elementary curriculum coordinators allowed us to send a flier offering district-wide classroom presentations through official district mail. Enthusiasm from principals and teachers in the three WHL pilot schools has been integral to nearly every event. Without a commitment to cooperation, WHL would simply not exist.

Second, an effective committee of citizen volunteers and an advisory committee comprised of experts from a cross-section of related fields formed. Third, educational experiences for elementary students in classrooms and on farms were offered with the support of principals, teachers, area vegetable farmers dedicated to education and volunteers. These experiences increase students’ understanding of local agriculture, prepare them for special meals and enhance the existing school curriculum.

The fourth accomplishment of the project was an initial flow of fresh, local and organic produce to over 1,300 elementary students in three pilot schools at school picnics in spring 2003 and at Harvest Festival lunches in fall 2003. Local farmers, parents, volunteers and the local media attended these special events, which featured homegrown salads, rhubarb muffins, fresh tortilla wraps and veggie chili. Principals and teachers agreed to extend lunch periods for these special events, and encouraged many creative ways to change the lunchroom ambience with decorations related to local farms and nutritious food. Finally, we have worked to identify, assess, and disseminate information about a range of constraints and opportunities facing this project, which we hope will assist others interested in farm-to-school possibilities.

Challenges

Research and action within the first year of the project has illuminated several significant and interrelated barriers to the purchasing of local foods, in the long-term. Public school foodservices are unique and challenging customers for small- and mid-scale growers, in that they operate under more rigid financial and regulatory constraints than most hospitals, universities and other institutions. If connections between farms and schools can occur, they can almost certainly work within other institutions as well.

Centralized kitchen

Like many medium-sized and large school districts, the MMSD foodservice uses a centralized production and distribution facility, producing approximately 18,000 meals a day in assembly-line fashion, and distributing by truck meals pre-packed in plastic to the forty-five schools in the district.

Low budget

Costs for both food and labor have been minimized within the facility, which certainly diminishes market opportunities for local growers. Food costs incurred to the foodservice average only $0.68 per elementary school meal, which is partially made possible because school districts have access to the large, anonymous pool of USDA Commodity Foods, including surplus meats, dairy products, grains and processed foods. The availability of these commodity products presents a substantial barrier to many local producers, and has caused us to focus almost exclusively on the potential for incorporating fresh vegetables into meals.

Minimal food preparation

Pressures to decrease labor costs have resulted in very little cooking and food preparation actually taking place within the facility. Staff are accustomed to receiving even fresh vegetables in foodservice ready forms—washed, peeled, chopped, diced and bagged.

Fast is familiar

Similar to nationwide trends in school foodservice, standard lunches look similar to, and sometimes are, items from fast food restaurants, including tacos, french toast sticks, chicken nuggets, hamburgers and pizza, though they certainly meet federal nutrition requirements for school meals on a weekly basis.

After employing several strategies, the project team is focusing on developing new menu items that could incorporate local produce and fit within the existing foodservice system. At the same time, we are working with vegetable farmers and a local food cooperative to explore possibilities for fresh-cut processing, including washing, peeling and dicing. Despite the dismal outlook for immediate consistent flows of local foods to Madison’s school cafeterias, educational experiences focused on local food and agriculture continue, and are being enjoyed by students in classrooms and on nearby farms. When given the opportunity, most children jump at the chance to taste a wide variety of fresh, locally-grown produce and love to talk about it!

Farm-to-School Strategies for Planners

While recognizing that most planners certainly do not have time to add duties such as extensive classroom education and menu planning to their job descriptions, planners can take on important roles of facilitation and support for farm-to-school and similar projects. At any level from neighborhood to region, if one has an interest in the farm-to-school idea and flexibility within his/her professional role as a planner, the following general strategies may be helpful.

Facilitate a discussion. First and perhaps most importantly, planners can initiate roundtable discussions with a broad array of people to gauge possibilities and level of interest in linking farms and schools. Initial contacts might include farmers market coordinators, area school foodservice directors, school board members, university extension staff, teachers, students, community groups, public health advocates and staff from a state department of agriculture focused on direct marketing. Farm-to-school connections are and will likely continue to be framed and shaped differently in each community, and if the interest exists, it is important to include as many people as possible from the beginning to assess goals, strategies, and funding options.

Consider scale and labor issues initially. Depending on whether or not a planner is tied to a particular municipality, it may be advantageous to begin with small school districts, many of which still have kitchens in schools and a greater capacity for food preparation than the centralized arrangement described above. These districts might be better equipped to use significant volumes of whole, fresh produce and provide small-scale farmers with a realistic starting point.

Broadly assess capacity for institutional purchasing. Though public schools are quite important institutions to focus on for equity reasons, in the long run they alone will not likely provide the demand necessary to keep local farmers in business. Instead of focusing exclusively on schools, planners should assess the institutional food purchasing capacity within a municipality or region and develop realistic goals for policy initiatives to encourage local purchasing.

Share stories at the state level. Local farm-to-school efforts are extremely important because of the potential for direct community participation and creative solutions. However, by facilitating the creation of reports and policy recommendations, planners might be in a unique position to connect local challenges and successes to state departments of agriculture and education.

There is much to be gained by linking farmland preservation, school nutrition and farm-to-school efforts. In Madison, Wisconsin and many other communities across the country, citizen-eaters and community organizations have begun to weave these ideas together into a tapestry of a sustainable and just local food system. Planners working in the public sphere can strengthen the resilience of this system in many ways, including building support for local agriculture through the purchasing patterns of public institutions.

Public schools are complicated and crucial places to build support for a diverse local food system. Farmers squeezed out of area markets by enormous corporate agribusinesses deserve support and stable markets from public institutions, and youth in our communities certainly deserve access to higher-quality and nutritious food in schools. Planners can take a proactive role in beginning discussions about farm-to-school as an innovative, holistic, long-term strategy toward farmland preservation, health and sustainability.

Heather Stouder is a Master’s candidate in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For more information about the University of Wisconsin Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, visitwww.wisc.edu/cias, and the non-profit REAP Food Group, visitwww.reapfoodgroup.org.

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