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Linking the Land with the Lunchroom

By Doug Wubben

Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch learned early on in its work with the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) food service just how challenging it would be to incorporate fresh, locally produced foods into the school lunches. These challenges include the structure of federal subsidies for commodity foods, seasonality, and the understandable demand for convenient foods during school lunch preparation.

MMSD provides school lunches for all 43 schools through one centralized kitchen facility. The staff assembles the lunches into packages, chills them, and trucks them to each school the next morning where the "hot pack" is re-heated in the school's oven and then served to students. This facility and the staff that run it are able to create and deliver 15,000 meals each school day to all the schools in the district — on a budget of only $0.68 per meal for the food.

Despite the challenges involved with changing lunches, Wisconsin Home-grown Lunch worked in conjunction with the district's food service to create new menus and to source the local foods. These new menus were tested at three elementary pilot schools. One of these new meals, a chicken-vegetable fajita wrap with a sweet potato muffin and an apple, was offered districtwide to 6,500 elementary students in November 2004. For this one meal, the food service staff took on the extra work of shredding 100 pounds of spinach, cabbage, carrots, and turnips for the vegetable mix and cooking, peeling, and mashing more than 400 pounds of sweet potatoes to use in the muffins.

No small task for a food service operating on a very tight budget. And by the end of last year it became clear we wouldn't be able to include local foods in the lunches unless they could be delivered "food service ready" (shredded, cooked/mashed, etc.).

This was a problem since there was no one providing the fresh-cut produce that was needed for the schools. Fortunately, right about this same time, a local grocery cooperative, Williamson Street Grocery Cooperative, was building an off-site kitchen to expand its deli operation. The co-op partnered with Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch and has sold the school district shredded carrot, cooked sweet potato, and diced rhubarb for muffins and salad mix for pilot school picnics.

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