Eat Here, Eat Well
By Anna Thomas Bates | Photos By Jim Klousia 2
Collaboration in Jefferson County Benefits Schoolchildren and Their Families
Roasted rutabagas, organic apples and earthy mushrooms are not typical school cafeteria fare, but increased attention on healthy eating and sourcing local produce, coupled with support from local organizations, is making diverse produce on school lunch trays a reality.
It sounds easy: a farmer grows food, and schools buy and prepare it. But tight budgets, limited staff and federal nutritional regulations combine to create challenges. Organizations like Eat Here Eat Well in Jefferson County help schools create partnerships and overcome obstacles to getting fresh, local food in front of schoolchildren.
Eat Here Eat Well launched in fall 2011, and since then, the school districts of Cambridge, Fort Atkinson, Jefferson and Watertown have embraced the objectives and launched their own initiatives to deepen children’s relationship with local food and producers.
Eat Here Eat Well is supported by Cooperative Education Services Agencies (a state organization that negotiates purchasing contracts for schools), Fort Healthcare, and Town and Country Resource Conservation and Development. Community volunteers, local farms, parents and chefs are an integral part of the network.
Eat Here Eat Well organizes teacher symposiums to provide inspiration, meetings with district representatives to encourage sharing and cooperation, and coordinates in-school activities like “Chef in the Classroom,” taste-testing events and “Harvest of the Month.”
“Connecting rural resources and producers with urban markets to sustain them is a rich vein,” says Beth Gehred, Eat Here Eat Well’s coordinator. Add in the cooperation of school districts, and suddenly the local food movement has a new generation of locavores to inspire.
To accomplish their mission of connecting community food producers and school kids, Eat Here Eat Well needs continued funding, cooperation from school administrators, parent support, volunteers and engaged students. “It’s a slow but rewarding deal,” Gehred says.
Rebecca Blyth is the student nutrition director for Jefferson School District. It’s her job to serve 1,500 lunches and 500 breakfasts each day. Blyth describes her initial hesitation and fear, worrying about produce that wasn’t standardized, fully washed and prepared. She also has the logistical challenges of limited staff and money and of being required to get bids before purchasing.
But Blyth’s initial uncertainty has changed to unwavering support. Her enthusiasm is demonstrated in the ways she and her staff have worked to engage local farmers and encourage students to try new foods. Blyth has even spent hours of her own time picking organic apples for the district. She builds relationships with local farmers and is working with the school’s agricultural teacher, Sarah Whitley, to grow greens, radishes and alfalfa sprouts in the school greenhouse. Last year the students grew “the most colorful radishes I’ve ever seen—they were just gorgeous!” said Blyth.
The enthusiasm spreads beyond the lunchroom. The district coordinates with local grocery stores to offer specials for featured vegetables. Blyth says children learn “life-long good eating habits here, and they share it with their families.”
Joan Jaeckel, supervisor of food and nutrition services for the Watertown Unified School District, says, “One of the biggest challenges for using local product is the sourcing of it. It is time consuming to make the contacts, arrange for delivery and payment.”
Jaeckel has worked hard to make her own direct connections—last year she purchased 250 bushels of apples from Lapacek’s Orchard in Poynette, Wis.—but to navigate the complicated issues of sourcing multiple products, Jaeckel relies on a program called Farm Logix, an Illinois-based company that provides online purchasing from local farms. During the 2013-2014 school year, Jaeckel used the system to buy more than 6,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables from farms in Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois, and she plans to purchase from Farm Logix again in the upcoming school year. Purchases included fresh carrot coins from Growing Power in Milwaukee and cornbread mix from Lonesome Stone Milling in Lone Rock, Wis. She knows exactly where the food came from and how far it traveled, thanks to Farm Logix’s reports.
Receiving minimally processed vegetables from regional producers (such as cubed sweet potatoes) allows her staff to easily serve dishes like roasted root vegetables by simply adding olive oil and seasonings—very different from but not much more labor-intensive than the frozen french fries found on many lunch trays.
Schools are also growing their own produce. Cambridge’s school garden at the Severson Learning Center produced 35 pounds of butternut squash and 110 pounds of cherry tomatoes in 2013.
Peter Watts, seventh grade science teacher at Riverside Middle School in Watertown, secured a grant this year to build 16 raised garden beds. Watts and fellow teacher Kris Travis used the garden to teach a summer class called “How to be a Locavore.” Ten sixth, seventh and eighth grade students spent their mornings weeding, watering and measuring their crops’ progress, and they enjoyed new foods every day, including salsa, grilled zucchini and pesto. Watts said, “I didn’t think they’d like it, but they ate everything. When kids do it themselves they have more incentive to try.”
Watts was initially reluctant to write the grant, but he credits Eat Here Eat Well with laying a great foundation through coordinating inter-district meetings and workshops, which encouraged him to go for it. “It’s important and inspiring,” he says. He’s been amazed at the number of staff and parents who started their own gardens in response to the school’s garden. “Kids that garden turn into adults that garden,” says Watts.
At Purdy Elementary School in Fort Atkinson, one of Eat Here Eat Well’s Chef in the Classroom sessions blossomed into something much bigger. In early 2013, Chef Tyler Sailsbery from the Whitewater restaurant Black Sheep, hosted a session on sweet potatoes. “I didn’t do easy stuff,” he said, instead challenging students with a sweet potato crust pizza with parmesan and asiago cheeses and figs.
Sailsbery is committed to local foods and getting kids involved at a young age. “I believe if we want kids to eat well, we need to feed them food that tastes good and is good for them.”
In spring 2014, the school asked Sailsbery to come back for their annual artist-in-residence program, but this time with a culinary slant. Sailsbery and staff designed a three-and-a-half week curriculum to highlight the life cycles of different foods. All grades participated in field trips and cooking sessions, and Nutrition Director Barbara Waara made sure every student in the district ate the featured food of the day.
The program kicked off with a bang, bringing a cow to school. It was milked by hand and then each student received a mason jar filled with Sassy Cow cream to shake into butter. Students grew mushrooms and spicy greens, visited Rushing Waters Fisheries and a pheasant farm, learned about raising hogs, and designed their own diverse-crop farms at Michael Fields Agricultural Institute.
Each day Sailsbery sent recipes home with students. “I feel lucky to have done it. You don’t realize how much of an impact you really have.” He was contacted by parents of a foster child who had an array of problems, including nutrition. The parents said the child came home so excited about Chef Tyler’s class that she now regularly encourages her family to buy, prepare and try healthy foods.
“If we change the way the kids eat, we change the way the house eats,” says Sailsbery.
Programs like Eat Here Eat Well are just the beginning— exposure to new foods and neighboring farms supports the local economy and has a ripple effect as children’s enthusiasm inspires parents and families to buy, cook and eat differently. Enthusiastic children then grow into enthusiastic and educated adults who, in turn, pass excitement for good food on to their own children. And the cycle continues.
This is the formula for real, long-lasting change, and it’s happening in Jefferson County.