The setting seems unlikely, but Sara Tedeschi discovered one of her life’s passions in a noisy Madison elementary school lunchroom, where she helped as a parent volunteer.
Tedeschi was already working at CALS’ Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) on a program called Farm to College, which sought to increase purchasing of locally grown foods by Wisconsin colleges and universities. But looking around her children’s cafeteria, she saw another arena for improvement.
Kids were being served plastic-sealed lunches in the form of “hot packs” and “cold packs” featuring meal components delivered largely through national distribution companies or the USDA commodities program. Hot packs contained items to be heated up—a meat patty and french fries, for example—in a school kitchen so minimally equipped that no real cooking could take place there, a typical set-up in many school buildings. Cold packs contained accompanying items—a bun and ketchup for the burger, for example, and a serving of a raw fruit or vegetable such as carrots.
“There were no choices or self-serving that would allow children to take ownership of what they ate,” recalls Tedeschi. It also squandered “a potential learning moment,” she says, for teaching children all kinds of things about food—what makes a good portion size, the pleasures of colors and textures, what nutrients are found in different foods and why they’re good for you—in a hands-on way that could set kids on a course of healthier eating for life.
That was in 2001. And Tedeschi and her fellow parents weren’t the only ones who wanted to make some changes. In lunchrooms around Wisconsin and, indeed, the nation, parents and professionals in nutrition, agriculture, food service, health care and education were starting to envision and create improvements. Their efforts emerged alongside growing interest in strengthening local food economies and concern about the consequences of poor diets such as the rise in childhood obesity, particularly in areas with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Their grassroots initiatives became known as “Farm to School,” programs that connect schools with local or regional growers in order to serve their produce in school cafeterias, often drawing many other types of food businesses—food processors, manufacturers, distributors and related operations—into the process. Farm to School also encompasses educational activities such as school gardens, field trips to farms, food tastings and cooking classes with local chefs and farmers, all focused on growing, preparing and eating healthy food.
Resources serving Farm to School sprang up as interest grew. Today they include the nonprofit National Farm to School Network (NFSN), a USDA program and numerous grant opportunities at federal, state and local levels. According to NFSN, Farm to School programs now operate in more than 10,000 schools in all 50 states.
From the beginning the movement had a vibrant presence in Wisconsin. When Tedeschi had her “cafeteria moment,” she shared her ideas at CIAS, most notably with her mentor, Jack Kloppenburg, a CALS professor of community and environmentalsociology who had long been working to strengthen ties between urban communities and area food growers. He and Tedeschi received federal and other funding to launch “Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch,” essentially Wisconsin’s first Farm to School program, with Tedeschi serving as coordinator. The program was carried out in partnership with REAP Food Group, a Madison-based nonprofit that Kloppenburg helped found and that remains a Farm to School leader in southcentral Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin program had a wide influence and helped ignite other Farm to School initiatives nationwide. CIAS remains a leader in the field, providing technical assistance and resources throughout the state and region. Activities include working with the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) on a Farm to School AmeriCorps program that provides staff for eight Farm to School sites around the state; serving as host of the Great Lakes Region Farm to School Network, one of eight regional groups comprising the national network; and advising on Wisconsin’s first Farm to School legislation, passed in 2009, which among other things calls for a new staff position at DATCP to foster development of Farm to School. And CIAS last year convened the first statewide Farm to School summit in Wisconsin to serve the growing demand for information, networking and
Wisconsin Farm to School programs are blooming in school districts large and small. Chilton, a district of nearly 1,200 students in Calumet County, has set the gold standard for what Farm to School can be by incorporating not only fruits and vegetables but also meat and dairy from area farms into a healthful, varied menu of scratch-cooked meals. Middleton–Cross Plains, a district feeding 6,250 children, during the fall features a local item on the menu almost daily and, with such long-storage items as apples and potatoes, maintains a regular appearance of local foods throughout the school year.