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Harvest Festivals Reveal the Benefits and Challenges of Serving Local Produce in Schools

What do students at Shorewood Hills, Lincoln, and Chavez Elementary Schools have in common? All 1,400 of them, along with school staff and parents, will experience the bounty of local agriculture this month in school-wide Harvest Festivals.

As pilot schools involved with the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch farm-to-school project, each school will host Harvest Festival meals featuring fresh, locally produced foods prepared by the Madison Metropolitan School District Food Service. Assemblies featuring a local farmer and musical guest David Landau will precede the meals. One goal of the festivals is to build connections between local farms and school cafeterias.

Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch is a joint project of the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems and the REAP Food Group, the non-profit sponsor of the recent “Food For Thought Festival.” Like other farm-to-school projects popping up across the nation, Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch benefits children and local farmers by increasing the amount of locally grown, fresh produce served in school lunches.

Why don”t all school lunches contain local foods? Forging linkages between local farms and school cafeterias is not an easy task. The Madison Metropolitan School District Food Service operates out of a centralized kitchen on Pflaum Road, where breakfasts and lunches are compiled and trucked to the 44 schools in the district each day.

Operating on a very tight budget, the food service minimizes labor costs by purchasing a large quantity of ready-to-serve foods from large food distributors and the USDA Commodity Foods Program. This makes it difficult for the food service to use unprocessed local produce. Most of the fresh produce currently served in the district is processed in California or outside the United States. One exception is apples, which are purchased directly from Carandale Farm in nearby Oregon, Wis. while in season.

Frank Kelly, MMSD food service director, would prefer to purchase locally grown food when financially feasible. In order for farmers to access the school lunch market, however, they need to provide products that are washed, sliced, chopped, and bagged, and do not require additional food service labor.

Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch is working actively on this identified need for processing facilities. The project and associated farmer groups are exploring the possibility of a shared use agricultural facility, including a processing kitchen, in the Madison area. This facility could help growers market to all kinds of institutional food service markets including schools, colleges and universities, restaurants, hospitals and elderly care facilities.

“While we would like to provide healthy, locally grown produce at every school meal, the Harvest Festivals are a great start,” said Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch project coordinator Sara Tedeschi. “These festivals are the result of significant efforts by the MMSD School Food Service staff, principals, teachers, farmers and parent volunteers.”

During this school year, Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch will organize farm field trips and classroom presentations linking local agriculture, environmental studies and nutrition. In addition, the project will explore policy options at local, state and federal levels to address the barriers keeping locally grown food out of schools.

For more information about Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch, or to find out how to get involved, please visit the project web site at http://www.reapfoodgroup.org/farmtoschool or contact Sara Tedeschi at (608) 442-0426, smtedeschi@wisc.edu