It was Sunday morning, prime sleeping-in time, but CALS undergraduate Amy Jacobs was up at 7:30 a.m. and on her way to the kitchen to cut fresh vegetables.
Which is not so strange until you consider that a) she doesn”t like vegetables, and b) she spent four or five hours cutting them up.
It”s all in the name of science. The biological systems engineering junior is doing research for the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch project to help them streamline the process of getting local produce into area schools.
Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch, a partnership between the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems and the Madison-based non-profit organization, REAP Food Group, was created in 2003 to help local growers and food service professionals introduce fresh, locally grown products into local elementary school cafeterias.
Now the program has moved down the hall, from lunchroom to classroom. In 2005, Homegrown Lunch launched a weekly classroom snack program in Lincoln Elementary. The program worked so well that the group expanded to four schools this past year.
“It”s been wildly successful. We probably moved more produce [in the first few months] with the snack program than we did with the lunch program over the past few years,” says Doug Wubben, project coordinator for Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch.
Of course, it takes a lot of vegetables and a lot of prep time to provide a classroom full of hungry kids with carrot coins or sweet potato sticks. That”s where students like Amy Jacobs come in.
Through a grant funded by the American Dietetic Association, Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch was able to hire student researchers to prepare the snacks and analyze the pros and cons of the overall process.
According to Monica Theis, a senior lecturer in food science and the grant”s primary author, the goal of the study is to determine the most efficient and effective way to process the vegetables without exceeding the school district”s budgeted costs per student.
“On any given day, [the school district kitchen] can kick out up to 15,000 meals. It seems simple, for example, to take a few sweet potatoes from a field and process them for a batch of muffins. But what if you have 400 pounds of sweet potatoes for peeling, trimming, cooking, and mashing? These are not insignificant issues,” Theis explains.
Early in the project, it became apparent an intermediary processing step was needed to turn raw produce to a “recipe-ready” product that schools could use. The Willy Street Co-Op volunteered the use of their kitchen for the research project.
Funding for the grant was extended through June of this year to give the researchers another spring growing season for data collection.
“It”s a challenge with schools, that they”re not open during some of the most productive growing months,” says Theis. “So we get early vegetables in May and the fall harvest, but we miss the whole strawberry season and other summer crops.”
Another challenge is the fatigue factor.
“It”s one thing for Amy to go to the kitchen one day a week and know that, this May, she”ll never have to do it again in her life,” says Theis. “But what about people who do this 40 hours a week for a living? After you”ve peeled your 20th pound of something, the charm kind of wears off.”
Still, the hard work is paying off. Both Theis and Wubben agree that the snack project has been a huge success. And it”s not just helping the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch program. It”s also giving university students some real-world professional experience.
“My work with Homegrown Lunch has given me some experience with the food service industry and has exposed me to a different kind of research dealing with a larger-scale processing operation as compared with some in-lab research,” says Jacobs, who wants to work for a food company in the area of consumer product development.
But perhaps the project”s biggest success has been a change in grade-schoolers” attitudes about food.
“One out of every three meals is fast food and most of the food available at home is processed. But we”ve got kids now who have all eaten daikon radish and sweet potato sticks and kohlrabi and so they are much more open to trying new foods,” says Wubben.
“They”ve got a farmer to think about now and things are sticking with them more than I ever thought they would.”
Even Amy Jacobs is changing her view on vegetables.
“I”m getting better. I eat vegetables. But I like them cooked.”