Farm To School Program Could Face Loss In State Budget

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Premiere Date: 
April 14, 2017

Farm To School Program Could Face Loss In State Budget

WisContext: Scott Gordon talks about his reporting on the program. Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal cuts the coordinator position for the effort, which works to bring farmers' food to schools and provides educational opportunities for students. Tim Zander is one of the farmers who works with the program.

Episode Transcript

Frederica Freyberg:

In tonight's segment featuring WisContext journalists a look at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School program in Wisconsin.

Tim Zander:

Last year we did green beans. I think we did some potatoes, onions, sweet onions, sweet peppers, green peppers, cucumbers and zucchini. The kids get something good to eat and learn to like their vegetable.

Frederica Freyberg:

That’s Columbus farmer Tim Zander talking about the produce his organic farm provides three school districts as part of the Farm to School program. It's a program in the news right now because the governor's proposed budget cuts its coordinator position. This week, WisContext rolled out four online articles about the statewide program that started in 2009. We met up with Scott Gordon this week at Zander's farm as spring vegetable planting was underway. So we're here in a greenhouse on a farm in Columbia County. This farmer takes part in the Farm to School program. You've been doing reporting on this. Tell me about the Farm to School program in Wisconsin.

Scott Gordon:

Well, it's kind of a disparate thing and I think that's really the crux of the story, is that Farm to School programs are becoming a more popular thing in Wisconsin and in other states. But there's no standard way to do it. And it encompasses buying local ingredients for school lunch, but also things like taking field trips to farms, educational things about nutrition, having school gardens. For each school or school district that does it, there's sort of a whole different, you know, series of steps they have to go through to make it work out just based on their local circumstances and what's available and what kind of prices are there.

Frederica Freyberg:

One of the articles that you wrote was titled "Farm to School by the Numbers." What are the numbers that you can tell us about in terms of participating districts?

Scott Gordon:

So the most recent big kind of survey that the USDA has done about this found that about half the school districts and private schools in Wisconsin participated in Farm to School in some form or another. It's reached a little over a half a million students. You can really see it playing out across the state in different geographic areas, rural areas, urban areas, different, you know, areas of different political characteristics and other different population characteristics. So it really is quite widespread as far as I can tell.

Frederica Freyberg:

What have you heard from various districts about why they participate?

Scott Gordon:

Well, people are interested in the nutritional benefits for kids. You know, they've also found that with these programs, kids get more interested in the school lunch programs, which is good for the districts on a lot of levels. You know, for one thing they can get more reimbursement for things like free lunch programs. They also find when the students are more engaged with agriculture and vegetables and thinking more about nutrition, they're actually more likely to want to eat the stuff.

Frederica Freyberg:

And what have you heard from farmers who participate?

Scott Gordon:

Well, one thing we've heard is that -- from farmers and school districts is that it's really a logistical challenge to make this happen because a lot of school districts are already kind of tied into this broader food system we have in America that's more industrialized and held together by big distributors. And so as Tim Zander at this farm was saying a little earlier, there's sort of an aspect of re-inventing the wheel, where you have to figure out a distribution system that works on a logistical and economic level to get this produce grown and purchased and ordered and brought into these schools and prepared.

Frederica Freyberg:

What about the context, as it were, nationwide? Is this a program that other states do?

Scott Gordon:

Yeah. And actually the Midwest regionally lags behind some other regions in terms of its participation, which I was surprised to find. But there was an USDA research paper that came out recently that found that.

Frederica Freyberg:

Meanwhile, though, Wisconsin I’ve understood was kind of at the forefront of this Farm to school effort and now we find ourselves in the position where the governor's proposed state budget would actually eliminate the funding for an overall coordinator position. What have you been hearing from people involved in this Farm to School program about that?

Scott Gordon:

Well, what a lot of people have told me from school districts and from farms and from advocacy groups like REAP food group in Madison is they really find this coordinator position helps to bring together all these different pieces, all these different parties who have to understand each other in order to make it work. You know, a farm might not know what a school cafeteria has to go through to get a meal prepared and a school nutrition person might not know what a farm has to go through to get its produce to market. And so what people are telling me is that this person really helps to kind of bring all these people together and put a broader logistical perspective on all the things that need to happen.

Frederica Freyberg:

Scott, thanks very much.

Scott Gordon:

Thanks a lot Fred.

Frederica Freyberg:

Scott’s reporting can be found at WisContext.org, a partnership with Wisconsin Public Broadcasting and UW Extension. As for the budget cut of the coordinator, farmers involved in the Farm to School program expressed disappointment because they say that person shepherds its growth.

Becky Breda:

That person is the person who holds the big picture. We know who we're working with. But if we want to see the program expand beyond just a few districts that each farmer might be working with and see it have more impact across the state, then we need somebody in that position who can leverage other agencies and other groups, you know, to get this local produce out into other institutions.

Frederica Freyberg:

The dollar amount eliminated in the state budget for that position and an advisory council for the Farm to School program is just under $133,000 over the biennium. The governor's office says the State Department of Agriculture will continue to disburse federal grants toward the program.

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