As school starts, REAP program heads back to class

Farm to School coordinator answers a few questions

When Madison students go back to school this week, they will be greeted by new teachers and familiar subjects like reading, writing and math. But thanks to REAP’s Farm to School program, many Madison students will also get to snack on locally grown produce like Concord grapes, learn how to cook a meal from a Madison chef and have the opportunity to buy (or receive for free) a school meal — green chile mac ‘n’ cheese with barbecue pork, anyone? — from a food truck.

REAP Food Group, a nonprofit organization based in Madison, has a mission to grow the local food system in southern Wisconsin. The organization’s Farm to School program, in its 11th year, brings fresh and local food to children; establishes reliable markets for local farms using sustainable agricultural practices; and provides hands-on education in Madison classrooms. In 2013 REAP secured AmeriCorps funding for four part-time AmeriCorps members who educate pre-K through 5th grade students in the classroom as well as give cooking lessons with guest chefs to middle and high school students. Thanks to the program, during the 2017-2018 school year, REAP educators taught nutrition and agriculture lessons to 1,400 Madison students. I met recently with Haley Traun, a former AmeriCorps educator who is currently serving as REAP’s Farm to School education coordinator, to find out more about the program. Here is an edited version of our conversation.

As school starts, REAP program heads back to class

How did REAP’s Farm to School program get started?
When REAP began it was a group of various community members — educators, city workers, parents, all kinds of locals — who wanted to start conversations about food in Madison and how to civically engage Madisonians in where their food comes from and the sustainability of how it’s produced. As they started to partner with the university it became clear that it’s not only important to provide a market for locally produced food, but also to provide education in schools.

Why is it important to provide kids with raw fruits and vegetables as a school snack?
There is so much research on how important it is to start early when it comes to getting kids to try new foods and having them think about where it is coming from and how it impacts our environment and our economy. It can take 20-30 tries of a food before a child decides if they like it or not. Thursdays during the school year, REAP provides a snack to 11 schools that qualify for a [United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA] grant. [Students at these schools] get a fresh fruit or vegetable four times a week, but what sets REAP’s snack apart on Thursdays is that it is always locally grown. We also provide an education component called a “snack bite,” where kids get fun information about the fruit or vegetable and the farm where it came from. We’ve gotten tons of great feedback from teachers and parents about students’ willingness to try from the snack program.

How do farmers feel about the program?
I just spoke with Dave Mitchell from Mitchell Vineyard today and he is providing Concord grapes for the second and third week of snack this year. He [loves] doing it for the students, because not a lot of people get to experience his grapes because he sells them to wineries. And some farmers have been able to increase production to provide for us, which is incredible.

As school starts, REAP program heads back to class

How does the Farm to School program work in elementary schools?
For the classroom programs, we chose the 12 elementary schools with the highest rates of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. We teach everything from how fruits and vegetables and other foods affect your body and mind to gardening. Many schools in Madison have gardens, which is so cool. You can tie in everything from reading, writing, art and social studies into the lessons and incorporate them into whatever the teacher is teaching that semester. It’s not like we just go into the classroom saying “eat your three servings of fruit and vegetables every day.” Really, we are trying to get kids to experience new things and decide how they feel about certain foods.

As school starts, REAP program heads back to class

Is there a moment that stands out in your mind from last year in your work as a Farm to School educator?
One of our lessons is called Seeds and Soil. We have an accompanying song called “Dirt Made My Lunch.” We talk about how all of our food comes from dirt and I like to find out what the kids are eating for lunch that day and have them trace it back to the dirt. This second grade boy was like, “This is so disgusting! I can’t believe that there are worms in our soil and they are pooping in there and we are eating stuff from that! I’m only eating candy for the rest of my life.” And I said, “Do you know candy is made from?” He responded, “Sugar.” I asked, “Do you know what sugar cane is?” And he said no. “Well, sugar cane grows in the dirt,” I explained. “And so does corn, which makes corn syrup, which makes candy.” He just sat there and looked devastated and then said, “Okay, I’ll guess I eat things that come from dirt.” To see them make that connection is great.

As school starts, REAP program heads back to class

What is the CHOW program?
Currently we have CHOW [Choosing Healthy Options in Wisconsin] at Sherman Middle School where it serves the entire 7th grade. We want to provide them with basic cooking knowledge so that they can start to think about making their own meals and maybe sharing that at home and also talking about the importance of eating locally when they can. They all have different backgrounds — some kids are cooking every day and some have never seen an onion in its whole form. A guest chef joins us and provides a recipe (or they ask us for help, because many of them haven’t worked with middle schoolers before and they are excited to do something elaborate and we have to pull it back a little bit!), and then we follow the recipe with the students over the course of the hour-long lesson. The hope is that it is something simple that the kids can share with their family. One of the favorites from last year was ground chicken tacos from Pasqual’s Cantina owner Ben Roberts. Ben brought in pre-ground chicken, and we cut our own tortillas to make baked tortilla chips instead of frying them. We served the tacos with some local cheese, tomatoes and onions. We also have a chef in the classroom program at East High School. It’s similar except students have enrolled in a culinary arts class so the students have background knowledge, and we can do more involved recipes. On Mondays we prep ingredients, and on Tuesdays we assemble and eat all together.

Tell me about the Uproot food truck.
We launched it last year after the truck was donated by Emmi Roth Cheese Co. The truck is huge and has a fully stocked kitchen. We started by taking the truck to community events and the summer meals program that provides free meals at 50 sites during the summer. Initially we were serving food out of the truck to have the truck be visible. Then we secured a license to produce food on the truck, and after a lot of research we came up with the project to serve one locally sourced school meal per week — Tuesday through Friday — from the truck at East, Memorial, West and LaFollette high schools (the truck will start at Memorial High School on Wednesday, Sept. 5.) MMSD comes up with the menu and we help them locally source the produce. It qualifies as a school meal, so if you get free or reduced lunch, you get it at that price. The idea came from the fact that school lunch enrollment is around 25 percent for students, and because it’s a money maker for MMSD, those are disappointing numbers. Because of open campuses, students leave school to go to gas stations or fast food restaurants — usually whatever is close by and cheap — because many high schoolers don’t like to eat in the cafeteria. It seems some high school students feel stigmatized for eating lunch in the cafeteria, some students just leave with their friends, but don’t even get anything to eat. They’re just avoiding staying at school and eating lunch. The idea was to provide something fresh and fun that tastes great that the students can still go outside on a nice day. We will start the first week of school and hopefully run through October and then again in the spring until the end of the year. Editor’s note: Starting on Wednesday, Sept. 5, the Uproot food truck will be at LaFollete on Tuesdays, Memorial on Wednesdays, East on Thursdays and West on Fridays. The truck provides one meal per week. September menu items include a pork carnitas burrito with black beans, brown rice and shredded cheddar cheese wrapped in a tortilla shell, a gourmet grilled cheese with bacon served with a fresh broccoli salad, green chili mac ‘n’ cheese and a beef gyro with sliced red onion, tzatziki sauce and diced tomato on pita bread. (MMSD food staff is also hoping to provide a vegetarian option starting this fall.)

As school starts, REAP program heads back to classAnything else new for the 2018-2019 school year?
This year, Underground Food Collective will be processing our weekly Thursday snack, which includes washing, cutting and bagging anywhere between 400 and 1,000 pounds of produce a week. And all of the garden bars have been installed in the elementary and middle schools, which are essentially salad bars. Prior to having those, the students would get a pre-packaged fruit or vegetable. The point of the garden bar is that students have a choice — research shows that when students have a choice they are more likely to eat more servings of a fruit or vegetable. It’s also an opportunity to get more local produce in the schools.