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Madison schools celebrate healthy, homegrown foods with winter harvest meals

The bounty of our spring and summer gardens is still a few months away, yet hundreds of Madison school children and their families will enjoy Wisconsin fruit and vegetables in the middle of winter during three upcoming winter harvest dinners.

As part of the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch farm-to-school initiative, students and their families from Chavez, Shorewood Hills, and Lincoln Elementary schools will share a meal, largely grown in Wisconsin. Second in a series of three school meals highlighting local foods, the winter harvest meals are a unique collaboration between Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch, the Madison Metropolitan School District and the MATC Culinary Arts Program.

Students from the MATC Culinary Arts Program will prepare and cater these special meals using a wide variety of local and organic products. The dinners at Chavez and Shorewood Hills will feature squash bisque, Asian noodle salad, egg rolls and fresh baked bread. Apple cake with cream cheese icing and organic ice cream will please dessert lovers. The Shorewood Hills dinner is planned for March 2, and the Chavez dinner will take place March 9.

On February 24, families from Lincoln Elementary will celebrate Mardi Gras “Fat Tuesday” with a Cajun menu featuring classics like chicken jambalaya, greens, red beans and rice and sweet potato pie. New Orleans” famed king cake, a sweet dough ring draped with a rainbow of colored Mardi Gras beads, will offer a tempting after-meal treat.

The menus will include organic onions and carrots from Vermont Valley Community Farm in Blue Mounds, winter-grown spinach form Snug Haven Farm in Belleville, winter squash from Homegrown Wisconsin cooperative based in Madison, and cream and butter from Organic Valley cooperative in La Farge. The Rainbow Farmers Cooperative, a group of more than 300 small, minority and disadvantaged farmers throughout the Midwest, will provide meat and fresh produce for the meals. Wisconsin classics such as apples and maple syrup will be featured in the meal, with ingredients also contributed from Willy Street Co-op and Northland Cranberries.

Each meal will feature an educational program on agriculture and healthy eating. Will Allen, the founder of Milwaukee”s Growing Power urban agriculture project, will speak at the Lincoln meal about the Market Basket Program he operates through the Rainbow Farmers Cooperative. By participating in the Market Basket Program and selling weekly deliveries of fresh produce, schools can raise money for educational programs around food and agriculture.

Chavez parents and teachers will unveil plans for an ambitious outdoor classroom and school garden. This initiative will create a permanent bird and butterfly garden that will promote environmental education while beautifying the schoolyard.

Alice in Dairyland (Natalie Parmentier) will visit Shorewood Hills to promote her “buy local” message and advocate for healthy, locally grown food in Wisconsin schools. Families will get a chance to burn some calories after the meal at a lively square dance.

A joint project of the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems and the REAP Food Group, Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch seeks to bring local food into area schools. Due to budgetary and logistical constraints, school districts generally purchase pre-processed, inexpensive food through large distributors rather than fresh foods from local farms and businesses. A growing number of projects across the country are working to reverse this trend, finding ways to help farmers process their products and school districts pay for food that is fresh, nutritious, and supports the local economy.

In addition to special meals like the upcoming winter harvest dinners, students from the three pilot schools are learning about healthy food by experiencing it in many ways. Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch introduces children to fresh, local food through classroom activities such as tomato and apple tastings and farmers who visit the schools regularly. The project also hosts field trips to local farms, where kids get their hands dirty planting and harvesting, and their taste buds treated to the flavors of freshly picked produce.

Project coordinator Sara Tedeschi says, “Once they try them, many kids discover they are hungry for fresh vegetables. They may never realize it without being given the opportunity.”

With a deeper understanding of where food comes from and experience with healthy food choices, kids have the knowledge to make smart dietary choices that can benefit them their whole lives.

And that”s something worth celebrating.