Food service staff at the middle and high schools in Viroqua, Wisc., a city of 4,400 people in the bluffs east of the Mississippi River, were used to processed vegetables. Heat and serve, and they had a meal. So, when Monique Hooker, a French-born chef, stood with them in front of 500 pounds of raw, local produce in late August, the staff looked overwhelmed.
But Hooker, who was embarking with the workers on the first effort of a new Farm to School program, showed them how to take one task at a time. And by the end of the day, they’d made 100 gallons of ratatouille, which they could freeze and use through the winter.
It might seem that getting each eggplant, zucchini, green pepper, onion, garlic and tomato from a local farm would have been easier than driving each here from a farm across the continent. But it actually took a movement to make that happen.
Farm to School programs like this one in southwestern Wisconsin have been cropping up around the country in recent years. By connecting schools with local farms, they seek to promote health, support small farms, and educate children about where food comes from. The national movement, organized by the Center for Food and Justice and the Community Food Security Coalition, began in 2000, and lists 39 states with 2,035 school districts involved in the program.
The Viroqua program starting this year is so far a grassroots effort, and not yet connected to the national program. It emerged from the collaboration of the Valley Stewardship Network (a local environmental organization), the Viroqua Area School District, and volunteers like Hooker, 66, who ran a restaurant and taught cooking in Chicago before retiring to Viroqua.
“The health of the community begins right here on your plate,” Hooker says. “Whatever is on that plate is connected to the area, connected to your body, connected to the people who produce it.”
The budding Viroqua program will reach beyond the district to the entire county, and is funded in part by an AmeriCorps grant, which allows them to hire two half-time AmeriCorps volunteers. One will work as a nutrition educator in the schools. The other will work to connect farms and food service programs.
Luhning says that at some point they’d like to bring local meat and dairy into the schools, too.
“Our dream dream,” 29-year-old Luhning says, “is every school has a garden. Schools would be integrating 90 percent of produce from local farmers.”
But one of the major obstacles to reaching that dream, like many dreams, is red tape.
Volden, who has a bachelor’s degree in community medical dietetics and runs an organic dairy farm with her family, explained how in most school districts, food services is the only part of the school budget expected to support itself.
About 20 percent of the food generally comes from USDA commodities, which are limited to certain manufacturers. The rest is tightly regulated, she says, which also hinders local control. If there were more discretionary power of the commodity money, Volden, 53, would spend it on local produce.
Katie Wilson, president of the School Nutrition Association, which represents 55,000 school nutrition employees across the country, would also like to see more local control.
But that won’t come easily.
“There’s so much legislative rhetoric,” says Wilson, school nutrition director for a school district in a county neighboring Volden’s. “We’re out there fighting for it, but everything is wrapped up in politics. It’s a very frustrating process to try to change what’s been going on for 60 years.”
But learning about what Volden faces, Hooker says, is another one of the educational benefits of the Farm to School program.
“Knowing everything you’re saying will allow us to know how to tackle this beast,” Hooker says after Volden explains her bureaucratic challenges.
Story by Joe Orso. This article originally appeared in Plenty in September 2008. The story was added to MNN.com.