Ag secretary Sonny Perdue joins Verona students for lunch

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
U.S. Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue enjoys a slice of pizza topped with Wisconsin cheese during lunch with students at Sugar Creek Elementary School in Verona, Wis., on Oct. 1, 2019.

VERONA – Cheers filled the cafeteria at Sugar Creek Elementary School as students welcomed Sonny Perdue Tuesday morning.

The U.S. secretary of agriculture visited the school in honor of Farm to School Month and to learn about Sugar Creek's participation in the Fuel Up to Play 60 program which teaches youth about the importance of locally produced foods and wellness through nutrition and exercise.

As Perdue grabbed a lunch tray, he chatted with students in line about their school as they filled their trays with a variety of locally sourced foods on the table including cucumbers, pizza topped with Wisconsin cheese and yogurt.

Sugar Creek principal Todd Brunner said staff and students learned over the weekend that Perdue would be stopping at the school Tuesday morning following the ag secretary's visit to World Dairy Expo in Madison.

"They didn't really know who he was, but they knew he was big," said Brunner of the student's enthusiastic reception of Perdue. "He's super great with the kids and it's just been an incredible honor to have him here."

Easing himself into one of the lunch tables, Perdue chatted amiably with a group of fifth grade students surrounding him, asking and answering questions and topping off their noon meal with a toast of chocolate milk.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue enjoys a milk toast with Sugar Creek Elementary students Jameson, left, Elliot and dairy farmer Marilyn Hershey, right, on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019 in Verona, Wis. Perdue met with Fuel Up to Play 60 students to kick off National Farm to School Month. Fuel Up to Play 60 is the nation's largest in-school nutrition and physical activity program, created by National Dairy Council and the NFL. (Andy Manis/AP Images for Dairy Management Inc.)

"It's pretty cool that he stopped at our school to visit," said fifth grader Parker Sobczak, who is active in the Fuel Up to Play 60 program. 

The Fuel Up to Play 60 is a school nutrition and exercise program launched by National Dairy Council and NFL in collaboration with the USDA to improve health and wellness by encouraging youth to consume nutrient-rich foods and achieve at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day.

As an elementary school in Wisconsin, Brunner says Sugar Creek has done a great deal to promote Farm to School month by connecting with apple orchards, local produce farms including those who grow mushrooms, broccoli and more. 

"Our school is driven to do a lot for children. We have children that live in poverty and live in unsafe neighborhoods, so we try to make the school day a real fun, safe and healthy area focused on wellness," Brunner said.

After lunch, students escorted Perdue through the hallways of the sprawling elementary school into a meeting room filled with fourth grade students donning green and gold T-shirts emblazoned with the Fuel Up to Play 60 logo. 

After presenting the agriculture secretary with a box filled with Wisconsin cheese, students took turns peppering the congenial Perdue with questions about his job, his commitment to dairy farmers and more.

U.S. Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue takes questions from 4th grade students at Sugar Creek Elementary School during his visit on Oct. 1, 2019.

Perdue shared a memory of one of his very first days on the job.

"I had only been in this job for a couple of days when I heard that President Trump was planning to withdraw from NAFTA, a trade deal between the U.S., Mexico and Canada. I walked into the Oval Office and showed the president some maps and who would be really hurt, farmers in Wisconsin and the Midwest who had supported him and who would be really damaged economically," Perdue recalled. "He said, 'Ok, I'm going to give you a chance to get it done better'. So, our trade ambassador negotiated a new deal (USMCA) which is a good deal, and a better deal than NAFTA."

Students also zeroed in on the crisis facing farmers across the U.S., asking Perdue what he was doing to help farmers, specifically Wisconsin farmers and small farms.

"That's a great question and obviously one of our roles is to help farmers in their livelihood on the farm and in the fields, and even in the cheese factories," Perdue said. "What we're trying to do is make a level playing field across the world in trying to grow trade and help those people who work on our farms and milk the cows."

As for smaller farms, Perdue says they struggle simply because they don't have the economy of scale like larger farms that operate more efficiently.

"But we also have a spot in our hearts for the small family farms like we have here in Wisconsin," he said. "We're trying to do things for them that will help add value like having a creamery on their farm or cheese-making."

RELATED: Perdue fields questions during town hall meeting at World Dairy Expo

Perdue says that Farm to School programs also help by using locally grown or produced foods in the lunch programs, pointing to the cheese, milk and vegetables on the lunch menu.

The former Georgia governor drew laughter from the room when he fielded a question from a student on whether he liked being famous.

"I'm only famous at Sugar Creek," he said with a smile. "It's nice to be out in the public and not being identified. I love going out and doing things like this, and meeting people all over the country. So being 'not famous' isn't so bad at all!"

After being asked why he was so interested in agriculture, Perdue cradled his belly.

"I want you to look at me real close. Do you know what it takes to maintain this kind of body? It takes food every day. And guess where I get that food from? Agriculture!" Perdue said with a laugh. "Now, who likes to eat in here?"

"Me!!!!!!" came the resounding reply, much to the delight of Perdue.

U.S. Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue talks to firth grader Grace Wertz and her involvement in the Fuel Up to Play 60 program at Sugar Creek Elementary School in Verona, Wis., on Oct. 1, 2019.

Fifth grader Grace Wertz summed up Perdue's visit.

"He's really nice and so funny!" she said.

Despite rain showers across southern Wisconsin, Perdue headed over to Eplegaarden Apple Orchard in Fitchburg (a Farm to School partner) with a group of students for a tour of the operation and a discussion with local farmers.

Following that meeting, Perdue told members of the media that its vital for local agribusinesses to connect with local schools and share information about healthy, locally grown foods.

"It's important for kids to know where our food comes from," he said.

Brunner says that his school has been a leader in implementing health and wellness initiatives: adding locally grown foods to the school menu, creating sharing tables for students who are still hungry, limiting snacks from home, creating an all-school free breakfast program, forming a health school committee and starting up the first all-elementary biking and snow shoeing unit in Dane County.

"The kids are really buying into these activities," Brunner said.