AmeriCorps Farm to School program is win-win for farmers, schools and community
Wisconsin is fortunate in that its farmers and ranchers are excellent producers of agricultural products spanning the five food groups, which all happen to land on the supply side of the economic interaction.
This becomes especially important in the supply and demand picture as state school districts are experiencing increased demand for agricultural products to feed students, staff, and families. Many districts say products are in short supply or hard to find at all, forcing menus to change daily thanks to gaps in the supply chain.
According to Laura Rowell, Director of School Nutrition for the Howard/Suamico School District; “last minute menu changes occur regularly and more often than ever before in all school nutrition departments across the country. Our job is to do the best we can to provide proper nutrition for students on a daily basis"
Rowell says menu substitutions can range from the full entrée switch to a fruit or vegetable.
"Our main concern changes day to day and week to week. We are preparing by working closely with our primary vendor, expanding the number of vendors we purchase from, over-communicating and being creative with our storage space," she said.
Rowell notes that local products play a role in helping the district secure top quality foods as well.
"This week a local cheese maker, Springside Cheese from Oconto County provided cheese curds as we were struggling to get string cheese. This product is not only fun for kids, healthy and squeaky, but one that we can guarantee we can receive into our kitchens for our students,” Rowell said.
Recent shortages have impacted the district's ability to receive fresh produce items, milk, whole-grain rich products, chicken nuggets, yogurt, cheese sticks, beef, potatoes, baby carrots, and apples.
Farmer/rancher David Lee Schneider of AmeriCorps who serves as a Farm to School Educational Specialist for the Howard/Suamico School District says the Covid-19 pandemic combined with recent natural disasters and labor shortages have created many supply chain disruptions creating food shortages which affect school nutrition programs including breakfast and lunch.
"School nutrition staff adjusts daily due to what products their supplier can provide. Some school districts are self operated and do the buying with in-house staff while other school districts hire out a food service management organization to handle the procurement process," Schneider said. "To circumvent a supply chain bottleneck buying in quantity is an option but requires cold storage, which most schools don’t have that capacity. Fresh foods are perishable so long term storage is limited."
The AmeriCorps Farm to School team lead by Director Kara Ignasiak has created a valuable resource titled Wisconsin Local Foods Database (LFD), a project of the AmeriCorps Farm to School Program, which is funded by AmeriCorps the federal agency, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and some schools and some non-profits in Wisconsin.
In 2018, Megan Wise, an AmeriCorps Farm to School service member, created the LFD to help facilitate sustained relationships between farms and schools. Over time the program evolved to fill the need to share the LFD as a public resource to connect Wisconsin farmers and schools around the state.
Schneider says the Wisconsin LFD connects local farmers to local school nutrition directors and communities. Launched as a public tool in early 2021, the database contains detailed information on farms throughout Wisconsin in order to help school nutrition directors or community members easily find and maintain partnerships with local farm businesses.
Schneider, who operates Schneider Family Farms Red Angus Ranch, says the database also contains contact information for schools looking to purchase Wisconsin products, so farmers and ranchers can reach out to school food service directors directly. There are no fees to sign up on the database.
"The AmeriCorps Farm to School Program grows connections and educates students, teachers, and families about farming and agriculture, specifically where food comes from, how it grows, and the nutritional value of food," Schneider said. "Farmers gain expanded markets to schools and the community. Communities gain by a strengthened local economy by supporting local farmers and ranchers thus keeping the money local. Kids win by gaining access to high quality, nutritious local foods, and receive some hands-on classroom learning experiences."
The AmeriCorps Farm to School Program, Wisconsin LFD recently was named the Program of the Year 2021 for Wisconsin and was awarded the Governor’s Service Award. The award is presented to exceptional programs, service members, and volunteers who work to change community disadvantages and solve hardships.
Schneider says AmeriCorps Farm to School Specialists are available in each region of the nine different regions in Wisconsin to help farms or schools use the database.
"We encourage all farmers and school food directors to sign up on-line on the website for free marketing and networking," Schneider said.
Farmers can sign up to be a part of the database by visiting https://bit.ly/3E766WB. Food service providers may also sign up at https://bit.ly/3INnjHW. To learn more about the program visit https://bit.ly/3pToe0V