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For years, Wisconsin has been considered the gold standard in the farm to school movement. Wochit

GREEN BAY – Locally grown carrots, onions and tomatoes could have company in school cafeterias in the near future.

“We want to branch out and look at other items that we can get into the schools, that we normally don’t see on school menus,” said Lynette Zalec, food service director for the Green Bay School District.

Despite concerns Wisconsin’s farm-to-school leadership could be cut in the next state budget, local proponents are carrying on with what an expanded outreach of homegrown healthy food selections.

Zalec said specialty produce such as zucchini, cilantro and possibly eggplant could be made to order for Green Bay and other Brown County school districts, which have collaborated in recent years to bring fresh vegetables and fruit harvested by local farmers to school lunch lines.

“(And) we don’t limit it to just produce,” said Jen Van Den Elzen, executive director of Live54218.

The local nonprofit, in partnership with UnitedHealthcare, works with eight public school districts as well as the Green Bay Area Catholic Education system to promote farm-to-school and other initiatives that focus on healthy eating for more than 40,000 students.

“Local food is really valuable for kids,” Van Den Elzen said. “They’re always going to have that higher nutritional concept, and it’s going to create that connection for kids to understand where it came from.”

That win-win was exactly what the Legislature had in mind when it created the Farm to School office in the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in 2009.

Since then, advocates say, the Wisconsin office has become the gold standard for the farm-to-school movement nationally, connecting growers and schools, helping to secure hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants, improving children's nutrition and knowledge of agriculture, and pumping millions of dollars into the state's economy.

Now, they say, that may be in jeopardy.

Gov. Scott Walker has proposed cutting the office's now-vacant coordinator position and 15-member advisory council as part of his 2017-'19 budget, a move that would save $132,800 over the biennium.

Walker's spokesman, Tom Evenson, said the agency would continue to seek and disburse federal grants targeting farm-to-school efforts, and that another program manager will help out in the office. AmeriCorps workers also will continue to work on farm-to-school initiatives in some low-income schools, he said.

But farm-to-school advocates say without someone to coordinate the efforts — to understand the big picture and work on the supply chain issues that pose barriers — it could slow or reverse the momentum Wisconsin has built in recent years.

"That would be a huge loss," said Helen Dombalis, interim policy director for the National Farm to School Network.

"Farm to school uniquely sits at the intersections of education, public health, agriculture and economic development. And it's not every day that those players sit at the same table," Dombalis said.

"Without that coordinator position, those folks may not sit at the same table. They may not figure out how to make it work to get local foods into schools."

A national movement

Wisconsin's farm-to-school efforts are part of a national movement that has emerged over the last two decades aimed at improving school nutrition, expanding markets for local growers and increasing public understanding of how food makes it from the farm to your plate.

Initiatives range from school gardens and classroom curricula to contracts among schools, growers and processors. And it has been embraced by school districts around the state. In Wisconsin, nearly half the state's 424 districts — and 1,401 schools serving more than 565,000 students — took part in some way, generating $9.2 million in sales for Wisconsin growers and related businesses, according to the 2015 USDA Farm to School Census.

And a big piece of that has been working on supply chain issues. Farmers can't just deliver a load of dirty carrots to a school district loading dock. There are food processors and suppliers, bidding requirements and price constraints to be considered.

Some of the more robust programs are outstate, in places like Madison and Janesville, where schools are in closer proximity to farms. But schools throughout southeastern Wisconsin are working to boost their fresh offerings and relationships with growers.

Several suburban school districts that take part in a buying cooperative are working with their suppliers to make sure they purchase as much as they can from Wisconsin growers, said Cindy Jensen, director of nutrition for the New Berlin School District.

Milwaukee Public Schools has a number of initiatives, from the agriculture program at Vincent High School to a student-run cafe at the administration building where students with disabilities harvest their own produce from garden beds. And it has a USDA grant to provide fresh fruit snacks in classrooms two days a week with a mini program on nutrition — items it couldn't otherwise afford under the national school lunch and breakfast programs, dietitian Jessica Das said.

MPS estimated it spent about 8% of its $15.8 million food budget on locally sourced foods, according to the 2015 farm-to-school census, though it defines local as a 250-mile radius that takes it into Illinois and Indiana. Because of its size and the sheer volume of food it purchases, it can be tough for a smaller Wisconsin grower to make inroads there.

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Food service employees from Green Bay and other area school districts work to process over 3,000 pounds of onions and carrots purchased from a farm in Hortonville. The vegetables will used in soups and other foods at the schools. USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

But Chris Blakeney, of Amazing Grace Farm in Janesville, is hoping to change that.

Blakeney has been working on a deal that could put as many as 40,000 pounds of his frozen broccoli crowns into MPS kitchens next year, and another with two suppliers that could send his produce to schools all across southeastern Wisconsin.

A few years ago, Amazing Grace was a relatively small operation, with an acre of broccoli and 6 or 7 acres of other produce they sold through farmers markets and buying groups known as CSAs, or community sustained agriculture.

He was introduced to the farm-to-school movement by Jim Degan, the school nutrition manager at Janesville Public Schools and former president of the School Nutrition Association of Wisconsin. And his business has grown exponentially since.

Last year, he sold 23,000 pounds of frozen broccoli, up from 1,300 in his first contract with Janesville, and if the MPS contract comes through, that could more than double to as much as 70,000.

He estimates his economic impact this year will be about $200,000, $80,000 of that in labor alone.

Blakeney attributes much of his success to the resources and guidance provided by Sarah Elliott, who led the state farm-to-school office until she left last year to run the Dane County Farmers' Market. It was the workshops, the networking, the meetings with processors and distributors, that helped him navigate the system.

"But future farmers who want to get into it may find it (harder) to make that happen if there's not a coordinator to help them through the process," he said.

It will also make it more difficult for farm-to-school advocates to expand their efforts to other institutions, including early child care centers, hospitals and colleges, as they hope to do, said Beth Hanna, farm-to-school director for Community GroundWorks in Madison.

"What's happening in the classrooms and cafes is not going away. We know we have passionate schools and producers committed to farm to school," she said.

"What is at stake is the big picture planning ... needed to continue at significant levels or to scale up."

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