NE Wis. farmers join farm-to-school movement
- Article by: PATTI ZARLING
- Associated Press
- November 2, 2013 - 12:05 AM
CASCO, Wis. — Bill Roethle was working at his Kewaunee County orchard on a recent sunny day when his phone rang.
"Sure, we can have them there tomorrow," he said.
Within a few minutes, the owner of Hillside Apples sold 10 bushels of the fall fruit to the Ashwaubenon School District, a showcase of farm-to-school efforts at the simplest level.
It isn't always that easy.
Northeastern Wisconsin has hundreds of small farmers and many of them would like to sell produce and other products to local schools. But they may not be sure how to reach school food service departments, or have the time to fish for possible buyers, experts say.
Schools administrators, farmers and farm-to-school advocates are working to change that.
"Food services and farmers also don't always speak the same language," said Sarah Elliott, agriculture program supervisor for the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. "Our job is to help them find ways to work together."
Like other producers across the U.S., farmers in the Northeastern Wisconsin are banding together to form a cooperative to serve as a middleman to sell their products to school districts, and eventually, other cafeterias, such as hospitals. The local effort is in the process of incorporating and hiring a director.
The co-op would allow farmers to pool produce to create large enough stores of food to serve school districts. Currently, many local farms are too small to service districts, which serve thousands of meals each day.
Third parties who coordinate farmers' produce with people looking to buy them — often called food hubs —are springing up throughout the state.
"Hubs really help small to mid-size farmers," Elliott said. "I think for the most part farmers are very interested in working with schools. Farmers really like the idea of kids eating their food. They like the idea of sustainability, of shaping the next generation of eaters, but they may not know how to get the food there."
Eight local school districts —Green Bay, Ashwaubenon, Oneida, De Pere, Pulaski, West De Pere, Howard-Suamico and Wrightstown — have signed on to farm-to-school programs in the past two years, Press-Gazette Media (http://gbpg.net/HsUDoi ) reports. They are working with Live54218, an advocacy organization which aims to promote healthy lifestyles in Brown County.
The farm to school effort works to encourage schools to buy fresh produce from local farmers as much as possible, as well as educating students about the fresh foods on the food line in the cafeteria.
Valerie Dantoin, a local dairy farmer and faculty member with Northeast Wisconsin Technical College's new sustainable food and agriculture program, is helping to launch the local farm co-op.
The group has met several times and at least 20 farmers have indicated a commitment to moving forward, she said. The co-op is in the process of incorporating and hiring a director, as well as establishing a name.
Farmers already are working with school food service directors to plan next spring's crops, she said. Most farmers have sold crops before they begin to plant seed, she noted.
The team is working with farmers throughout Oconto, Shawano, Brown, Kewaunee, Door, Marinette and Manitowoc counties, she said. It also is working with other counties in the Fox Valley.
Apples are an easy way to start, but lettuce, carrots, peas, sweet potatoes and sweet corn are among the items that could be sold to schools, Dantoin said.
"We might as well feed our kids with locally grown foods," she said. "Our hope is to feed our own children with the most healthy, nutritious food we can.
"Farmers are looking for buyers for their products, but we haven't figured out how to get our own food from our farms to the people."
The co-op will serve as an aggregator, Dantoin said, handling paperwork, orders and deliveries.
"This way you don't have a school district trying to contact this farmer for this food or that farmer for that," she said. "They just work with the co-op and we handle all of that."
Elliott noted a recent farm-to-school survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found apples are the most popular food item in Wisconsin. Others are tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and lettuce.
"Districts have found different things that work for them," she said. "Tomatoes are used throughout the winter, schools can make spaghetti sauce and that sort of thing.
"Potatoes, kohlrabi and carrots are good storage crops. Since Wisconsin's growing season doesn't line up perfectly with the school year, you have some limits. But producers have found some things that work, like greenhouses to grow lettuce."
Hillside Apples has been working with De Pere, Kewaunee and Ashwaubenon school districts for the past few years, Roethle said.
Food service directors contacted him, he said. It's win-win for the orchard, which sells schools smaller apples that otherwise would be used to make cider.
"The smaller apples fit in with their program," Roethle said. "And it's a good outlet for us."
The orchard provides apples as soon as crops are ready and will continue through November and December, he said. The orchard likely could serve a few more smaller districts, but Roethle said he does not solicit the business.
The Oneida Schools food services program buys produce, bison and beef directly from the Oneida Nation Farms and Tsyunhehkwa, a smaller, educational organic farm. The tribal connection makes exchanges easier. But the tribal farms already work with some other school districts, and could branch out further.
Jeff Scofield, Oneida farm and orchard manager, said he works closely with school food services director Jesse Padron. The farm sells asparagus, summer squash, apples, pears, beef and buffalo to the schools.
"It's great to see kids eating healthy," Scofield said. "The kids come out, they can see where apples come from. They can see where the food they eat comes from. A lot of kids are so disconnected from agriculture. Their grandparents or great-grandparents probably didn't farm, they have no clue how much work it takes."
Schools buy traditional white corn from Tsyunhehkwa, as well as green beans, yellow beans, onions and other vegetables.
Director Jeff Metoxen said he supports the expansion of farm-to-school efforts, but said farmers need to work together.
"School districts might need 500 pounds of potatoes, that's not a level we can produce," he said. "We can't produce the pounds and bushels they need. But farmers in the area know each other. How can we work together?
"It's really for the benefit for everyone. It helps the local economy, and it helps with sustainability. You're not trucking fruits and vegetables from across the country."
An AP Member Exchange Feature
© 2013 Star Tribune