A commentary by Bob Kliebenstein, a rural Tomah resident.
In June I wrote a column about a collaboration involving three Monroe County school districts.
The districts of Tomah, Sparta and Norwalk-Ontario-Wilton (NOW) submitted an application for a Transform Wisconsin Food Systems grant. Transform Wisconsin is an effort to improve the health of Wisconsin residents.
There is ample information at www.TransformWI.com.
The collaboration was pegged "Monroe County Schools on the Go."
Meetings were held at each location over two nights. I attended the Sparta meeting on a dual mission, as a freelance reporter and a firm believer in the end goal of Monroe County Schools on the Go - to develop a farm-to-school network to provide locally grown fruits and vegetables for school cafeterias.
The school districts received a $160,000 grant to establish a program to increase the amount of fresh produce for student meals. They will also receive $35,000 from a USDA grant to assist in the effort.
Monroe County Schools on the Go was one of two applicants in Wisconsin to receive money from USDA.
I remember efforts many years ago by state dairy advocates to replace soda machines in schools with bottled milk.
Success was not immediate. It was not easy. But at many schools bottled milk is now readily available. I'm not certain of its consumption, but at least students have the choice.
I have been in many high schools since bottled milk became more prevalent, I cannot honestly admit I've noticed if soda is still offered in vending machines.
For those districts where soda machines are banned, if they exist, I applaud the decision.
Raised on a dairy farm and fully aware of the health benefits, (despite what some medical journals say) I don't apologize for my bias against soda in schools.
It's with equal fervor I hope Monroe County Schools on the Go is able to gain momentum. I was told attendance was modest at the two meetings I did not attend. It was not a capacity crowd at the Sparta School District Administrative and Educational Conference Center. But that did not lessen the positive discussion among participants.
Success will not be achieved in one growing season. It's a step in the right direction to have food service staff, educators and area farmers eager to plant a seed - figuratively and literally - for this effort to grow.
Many ideas were discussed where to proceed. Organizers want to identify allies and are seeking input from those who developed programs in other districts.
"A mixture of community members, parents, school staff, business owners and farmers attended our community meetings in Tomah, Sparta and Norwalk-Ontario-Wilton," said Autumn Grooms, project coordinator, after the meeting in Sparta.
"We were able to start great conversations on initiating farm-to-school programs in our districts. I know our coalition grew with those in attendance, and we will be getting together again soon to begin working on the community assessment tool and evaluate the next steps," Grooms added.
While the initial goal is to focus on produce, I was glad to hear Cashton farmer Corey Gonke plug the possibility of incorporating dairy and meat from local farmers into the equation. Why not?
Hurdles to clear?
Without a doubt. Existing food vendors for each of the districts may be a little nervous with this discussion.
School boards may need to "think outside the box" (I can't believe I wrote that) when it comes to shifting dollars, if needed, to expand or create school gardens and to provide other possible funding when the time comes.
Monroe County is a rural county, but it's daunting to think how many students in its boundary are unaware of their food's origin.
I would think agriculture and family science (home economics for old schoolers like me) teachers would be eager to see this effort flourish.
Possibilities are endless. Unfortunately the money is not. Who knows how far $195,000 will carry Monroe County Schools on the Go, hopefully to the point of self sustainability.
It should be our hope that when grant money is gone each district has a system in place to readily provide locally grown fruits and vegetables for students. And why not meat and dairy?
We should hope this effort will teach elementary school students the importance of healthy eating. We should hope more parents learn the same.
Be assured, I'm looking in the mirror when I make that statement. I'm conceding to my teenage daughter's mediocre eating habits. But it certainly can't hurt to try and reach a few stubborn teens.
A few years ago there were some who believed vending machines with bottled milk would never happen.
Now it's time to build alliances and provide locally grown produce for school meal programs.
It won't come without some hard work, but it's clear organizers are not afraid to get a little dirt under their fingernails to make this happen, fresh garden dirt.
Those unable to attend the community meetings but would like to get involved and learn more can contact Grooms at 608-269-3151 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.