Over the last decade farm to school programs have been popping up nationally, with burgeoning networks of farmers, chefs, and school food providers. Wisconsin alone has nearly 400 schools involved in farm to school and farm to early care (farm to ECE). The goals of Wisconsin Farm to School, according to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), are to strengthen the local agricultural economy; encourage healthy eating in schools; and educate children and families about food, nutrition, and the environment.
Among the 50 FairShare CSA Coalition farms, many are involved in Wisconsin farm to school in varying capacities, ranging from direct involvement with children in classrooms, to contributing educational materials to teachers, to providing produce to a school district’s food service provider. Lauren Kreutzer of Meadowlark Community Farm, Rufus Haucke of Keewaydin Farms, and Becky Breda of Two Good Farms share their successes, roadblocks, and innovative solutions for ensuring a stronger farm to school impact.
Cultivating enthusiasm in the schools
Lauren Kreutzer, who runs Meadowlark Community Farm with her husband Craig, has been an Americorps Farm to School Community Outreach Member since August 2016. She works in two elementary schools in Juneau County, connecting the school cafeterias with local farmers, organizing a Harvest of the Month program, and writing newsletters for the kids to share what they learn with their parents.
The Harvest of the Month, which Kreutzer initiated,
highlights a seasonal vegetable and includes a lunchtime taste test. “It’s a celebration of food. I encourage conversation. I want to hear about the flavors, do they not like the way it smells, the way it looks. Often we don’t even talk about the food we’re eating. So having a tasting, with the farmer there [is special].”
When her position started almost two years ago, it was the first year of having the program in the county. Kreutzer sees this program, along with the strong school gardens already established in the area, as an important part of farm to school in the region and recognizes the interest in the community as well. “To have the food service director use the tomatoes from their garden… That’s a source of pride for the kids.”
Kreutzer feels her role extends beyond the children with whom she interacts, but also their parents and the school kitchen staff. “The reason I started the position was because I see it as a part of… shifting the culture around food.” While she sees room for improvement in the quality of school lunches, she comments that the kitchen staff works incredibly hard, despite their limitations, and that gaining that perspective has been invaluable. Kreutzer will be wrapping up her term of service in August and is excited to work with the schools from the other side — as a farmer.
Slow but steady headway with school food service providers
Every movement has its challenges and some farmers have learned that the need for patience in achieving success in the farm to school world. Rufus Haucke of Keewaydin Farms has been involved with farm to school since its early days in 2009, primarily working with REAP in Madison, visiting schools several times a year as the “Farmer in the Classroom,” and running the LaCrosse County Farm to School program for a year. Though he has lessened his engagement with farm to school in recent years, Haucke will be working with North Crawford School District next year.
While Haucke loved working directly with the children, selling his produce to the schools fell short of his intentions.
“To be honest, I’ve been disappointed with the smaller volumes the school nutrition staff purchase,” shares Haucke. “Even today I find that there is still a lot of education to be done about seasonality.”
What’s the trick, then, to bringing the farm to school movement beyond a few classroom visits, and into the cafeteria on a larger scale? According to Haucke, the key is a motivated food service director who is on board to work with farmers and the reality of seasonal produce.
“The most important part is putting [the innovative food service directors] out there and getting them publicity. ‘Cause that proves to other food service directors that it’s possible.”
The cheap, easy solution to supplying school lunches is still tempting to providers, but many are breaking the mold and choosing to source from farmers. While budget, staff, and time limitations are significant considerations for school food service providers, Haucke comments that his produce was often more affordable than the alternative mainstream food distributor offerings. Despite his years of effort, breaking through the barriers of selling farm-fresh produce to schools has been tough for Haucke. “If anyone’s able to crack that nut, that’s great. I don’t feel that I was able to.” Perhaps patience and adjusted expectations will help farmers involved in the movement feel satisfied, as slow and steady progress is achieved in farm to school.
Creating a seamless system of farm-fresh produce
Becky Breda of Two Good Farms has been making significant strides in the realm of farm to early childhood education (ECE), incorporating produce as an educational component of the classroom. Married to farmer Tim Zander, Becky manages the farm’s CSA sign-up and produce distribution, including wholesale to three school districts in Columbia County. Her background in early childhood education and farm to school initiatives precipitated her role in helping launch farm to ECE in Wisconsin.
About two years ago Kids Forward, Community Groundworks, and The Parenting Place in LaCrosse received large grants from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation to support farm to ECE work. Breda was invited to collaborate with them to pilot a CSA model with early care providers.
This partnership came naturally to her, Breda says. “Because of my background in early childhood [and farming], I understand things… I can speak the early care language with [childcare] providers. It’s easy for me to go ‘here’s what we do with CSA for individuals and families, so how can we model that for childcare, given what we know about childcare?’”
The CSA-style farm to ECE initiative will kickoff this year with five pilot programs in Milwaukee, LaCrosse, and elsewhere. In addition, Breda will donate produce from Two Good Farms to three programs in her area. These programs represent three different models: one providing only snacks to the children, the second providing both full meals and snacks to the children, and the third extending meals to entire families. The data Breda will gain from these pilot projects will cover a broad spectrum of meal models.
Each of the pilot programs will receive strong support, including educational handouts on how to incorporate produce into the curriculum; resources from CIAS, including links to videos and books on school gardening; kid-friendly kitchen tools; and a flash drive with PDFs of these materials so the providers can access them offline. Like any other Two Good Farms CSA member, the three farm to ECE programs Breda is piloting will have access to the farm’s weekly newsletter with menu options and recipes, as well as a free subscription to the Local Thyme meal-planning service.
“My goal [is] that there will eventually be a seamless system for delivering farm fresh produce, so that kids can enjoy that across the spectrum of their childcare and school years.”
After trialing and evaluating the success of these programs, Breda’s ultimate plan is to create several CSA choices tailored to childcare programs. A family childcare model, for example, might include produce that could be made into baby food, vegetables that are easy to prepare with toddlers, and new veggies that are easily introduced to preschoolers. Programs that only provide snacks, on the other hand, might benefit more from larger quantities of fewer items each week.
Breda understands that her passion for farm to ECE will not be the case for every farmer. Figuring out the kinks in advance will allow other producers to replicate these models easily.
“My goal [is] that there will eventually be a seamless system for delivering farm-fresh produce, whether it’s in early childhood or lower elementary or high school or whatever, so that kids can have that across the spectrum of their childcare and school years.”
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