Feature Stories

What’s The First Word of Farm to School?

By Vanessa Herald | Photo By UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems "Chop! Chop!" video series 0

Chris Blakeney of Amazing Grace Family Farm (L) and Jim Degan of Janesville School District (R)

There are a whole collection of different activities that fall within the concept of farm to school, including anything from school gardens to student taste tests of seasonal local produce items to local yogurt on the lunch line to an event like Chef in the Classroom. But the first word in farm to school is always farm, and that’s because Wisconsin’s growers are at the heart of connecting students with healthful, seasonal foods with local flavor. The best part is, there are farms and farmers of all sizes and scopes that grow a wide variety of products that end up on the lunch trays of students across the state.

“We at Amazing Grace Family Farm are extremely excited to grow produce for the school district. To get local food to local students, it’s something that drives us at a farm.” These are pretty powerful words from Chris Blakeney, one family member from Amazing Grace Family Farm in Janesville, Wisconsin. He’s a champion of farm to school and works tirelessly to grow his farm’s markets by delivering fresh, local produce to Wisconsin cafeterias. Farm to school is a win-win for Amazing Grace and nearby students in the Janesville School District.

In operation since 1850s, Amazing Grace is a family farm that continues to evolve. In the mid-1970s, the family transitioned to sustainable agricultural practices as a core value, and almost ten years ago established a diverse community supported agriculture (CSA) program to feed local families in the Janesville area. Now the farm produces grass-fed beef, 40-plus types of produce, and greenhouse products sold at the farmers market, Basics Co-op in Janesville and through their CSA.

Even with these solid markets in place, Chris understood the need to continually innovate and build upon the farm’s success. His big idea to keep moving forward? Sell Amazing Grace Family Farm produce to schools and the wholesale market, a viable strategy to “scale up” by accessing these stable and reliable markets.

Amazing Grace Family Farm put the new plan in action by increasing production of just a few products that are in high demand by schools, like broccoli and cherry tomatoes. Although not required by schools, Chris worked to verify his good food safety practices through a third-party Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) audit. This increase in volume and food safety verification helped him form a relationship with a regional distributor who already sold to Wisconsin school districts. Thanks to Chris’ clear vision and dedication, Amazing Grace produce items became available to school districts through this new distributor relationship.

Lo and behold, most of his broccoli ended up right back in his own backyard...less than ten miles away on the trays at Janesville School District.

Meet Jim Degan, manager of school nutrition at the Janesville School District. Jim is wholly dedicated to the health and well-being of the more than 10,000 students attending the 9th largest school district in the state. Initially Jim sourced local, seasonal vegetables through his regular produce distributor because of the ease of ordering and accessing minimally processed products. Since many school districts have limited capacity to process whole vegetables, (just imagine how much peeling and chopping is involved when you deal with hundreds of pounds of produce!), it’s often a requirement that produce arrive peeled, chopped, cubed, shredded or whatever is needed for easy service in salad bars, garden bars and center-of-the-plate dishes. But that changed when Jim discovered the fresh produce that Amazing Grace was growing in farm fields practically right next door.

Jim and Chris took the time to meet in person and develop an old-fashioned business relationship based on a mutual desire to provide very fresh, delicious, local produce to students. Meeting face-to-face, the two strategized ways for Amazing Grace to work more directly with the school district. The solution? Build on existing relationships with a local food processor to transform the raw product into broccoli florets, and create a new, local supply chain that increases supply to local schools clamoring for fresh items to serve on salad bars and hot lunch lines. By working locally, the team reduced the number of stops along the supply chain, kept the produce closer to home, and ensured a fresher product with a better bottom line for both the farmer and the school district.

This year Amazing Grace is planting an additional ten acres of broccoli, and it’s all destined for Janesville School District and other Wisconsin lunch trays. The strength of this local relationship is two-fold. First, the identity of the farm is maintained through the entire supply chain. Second, the success ripples beyond farm to school partners in Rock County, as now there is increased supply of this great local broccoli for partners like REAP Food Group and Madison Metropolitan School District. This creative “scaling up” is an effective strategy to grow farm to school, and farm to institution, efforts through the entire state.

It’s clear that farm to school is a win-win for Janesville School District, Amazing Grace and other districts looking for local foods with a good story. As Chris says, “We are a small farm, and in this day and age, being a small farm is a hard life to live. But doing this [farm to school] is great. We have an opportunity to both help our community, get to know the people we are serving produce to, and make a living at it.”

Watch the Chop Chop interview between Chris Blakeney and Jim Degan here.

Vanessa Herald is head chicken wrangler at Make Time Farm in Southern Wisconsin, where she hosts monthly Make Time creativity retreats. Telling stories about food and farmers feeds her curiosity, providing endless fodder for tasty adventures. Vanessa serves as Farm to School Outreach Specialist at the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, but you can also find her handwriting letters, making Icelandic skyr and crafting art with vintage typewriters.

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