A huge tub of cranberry-apple salsa, made from Wisconsin-grown fruit, glows ruby-red under fluorescent lights in the Mount Horeb Area Schools' production kitchen. Two hair-netted food service employees spoon the salsa into little cups, working fast because they still have 1,650 main meals to put together for Mount Horeb students in grades K-12. But even at 7:30 a.m., the two wear big smiles.
For one thing, their homemade salsa is a joy to behold: fresh, colorful, fragrant with orange zest. For another, processing 30 pounds of locally sourced cranberries and 20 pounds of apples for the district's Harvest of the Month offering may be extra work, but it's nothing compared to the vast amount of washing, chopping, peeling and cooking that goes on earlier in the fall. That's when more than 4,000 pounds of fresh produce from local farms comes pouring through the doors of the food service facility - not all at once, but in steady weekly deliveries of whatever's ripe.
"We can handle this amount of labor with just two staff," says Michelle Denk, director of child nutrition for the Mount Horeb Area School District. "But during the harvest, we need four parent volunteers every week for two or three hours. What we don't use right away, we make into soups and sauces, which we freeze."
Between August and October, 90% of the fruits and vegetables on Mount Horeb's lunch menu every day is locally grown, much of it donated through a partnership with Vermont Valley Community Farm (which gives a hefty portion of its surplus produce to the district). At the height of harvest, students are enjoying tomatoes, green and red peppers, eggplant, summer squash, lettuce, celery, beets, cantaloupe, kohlrabi, kale, broccoli, ruby-heart radish and watermelon - and that's just what's coming from Vermont Valley.
Also on the lunch menu are purchased items: potatoes, cauliflower and carrots from Parrfection Produce, yogurt from Sugar River Dairy, apples from Richland Hills and cabbage from Primrose Community Farm.
"It's personally important to me," says Denk. "I'm the kind of person who looks at other people's grocery carts and wonders, why don't they eat better?"
Parent volunteers help her with pickup and delivery of produce, processing and promotion of local foods in the classroom and lunchroom. Vermont Valley Community Farm's donation makes the whole effort affordable. In a district surrounded by tidy red barns and sloping, furrowed fields, Denk says, the idea of fresh, local food on the lunch table just makes sense.
"Many of our parents are farmers," she points out. "They've grown the food and they want the kids to eat it. We're the ideal community for this."
But what is "this," exactly? It looks like Mount Horeb is Dane County's poster child for farm to school, the growing movement to link the land and the lunchroom.
But Sara Tedeschi, Wisconsin farm-to-school program director with the UW's Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, worries that touting the district's 90%-local rate might be misleading. Other schools couldn't begin to contemplate that kind of success, and without its Vermont Valley donation, Mount Horeb couldn't either. In a striking example of the complexity - and difficulty - of this movement, it turns out that a seemingly win-win partnership doesn't technically fit the long-term farm-to-school model.
At its heart, the farm-to-school movement in Wisconsin has always been about two things: providing fresh food for kids and nurturing an economically viable institutional market for local growers. That means schools finding ways to pay up, and farmers finding ways to deliver efficiently.
"Positive impact on farm income is a key benefit of farm to school, which we hope will lead to increased stable, local markets for farmers and, in the long term, more vibrant local economies," says Tedeschi.
Since helping to launch the USDA-funded Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch program (administered through REAP - Research, Education, Action, and Policy in Food Group) in 2002, Tedeschi has worked long and hard on some of the most daunting obstacles to farm to school, and she knows cost is one of them. But she wants schools - and farmers - not to try to get around cost, but to deal with it.
"If the majority of the product is being donated, then it isn't a model we can promote as replicable. In fact, we try to discourage farm donations as a rule of thumb, simply because it does very little to address real solutions."
Others might point out that no farm-to-school model is fully realized, and that Denk is building valuable relationships and cementing a supportive mindset for farm-fresh food. The USDA Farm to School Network site declares: "At its core, farm to school is about establishing relationships between local foods and schoolchildren."
Denk spends roughly $27,000 on local food from her other suppliers (around 7.7% of her total budget, which also must cover non-local food in the winter months as well as bread, meat and other items). She hopes that the Vermont Valley Community Farm relationship will move toward more food purchased, rather than donated.
Farm to school is not a return to the good old days, but something entirely new.
In this country, farmers have never before sold food directly to schools. In the early days of the last century, rural Wisconsin students brought sandwiches from home in tin pails (the food often froze on the way). During the Great Depression, the government stepped in, buying up surplus produce from farmers and directing schools to procurement sites for that food, which set the stage for Harry S. Truman's signing of the National School Lunch Act in 1946. In the roughly 75 years since, school lunch became institutionalized, and the government has always been the middleman.
USDA officially launched the farm-to-school initiative in 1997, and farmers and schools are still struggling to connect in ways that benefit both economically. In Madison, Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch ran into such overwhelming obstacles to getting local food on the lunch table that the program rebooted in 2010 as REAP Farm to School, focusing exclusively on snacks and education.
But change is on the horizon. In 2010 Wisconsin passed AB 746, known as "The Farm-to-School Bill," which created a statewide Farm-to-School Advisory Council, under the aegis of the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. One of its mandates is to "encourage schools to purchase food produced in this state."
"We are really lucky because now there are people at state agencies who are committed to this, thinking about the funding opportunities, strategizing how farm to school can happen," says Tedeschi, a member of the council. "Not every state has that cooperation."
Also in the works in Dane County: a 25,000-square-foot packinghouse to process and market locally grown vegetables, fruit and other farm products.
And on Jan. 25, the first-ever Wisconsin Farm-to-School Summit will be held at Lake Lawn Resort in Delavan. Tedeschi, who helped conceive the event, says food service directors from around the state have signed up.
Michelle Denk will appear on an "Ask the Experts" panel at the summit and will share many stories, including the one about Christopher Klaeser, who works at Vermont Valley Community Farm. Klaeser loves working with kids, Denk says, and he helped her dig a garden last spring near the entry to the elementary school.
"Vermont Valley donated seedling potatoes, and Chris came and planted them with the kids. We knew they wouldn't require much care and water - not more than a parent volunteer could handle over the summer," says Denk.
Over a hundred pounds of potatoes were harvested in November and used that same day in the lunchroom for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. Klaeser joined the kids for the meal, and photos show trays strewn with thick, multi-colored fries and big grins on every face, including Klaeser's.
Farm to School Toolkit, published by UW's Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems: www.cias.wisc.edu/toolkits