The Mix

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Expanding Farm to School through Salad Bars

By: Emily Gallivan

Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools is excited to be celebrating National Farm to School Month this October, paying homage to the hard work and dedication of food service professionals, farmers and educators across the country who are connecting their communities with fresh, healthy and local food. And what better way to celebrate than to highlight one of our grantees who is using their school salad bars as a vehicle to drive farm to school forward: Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) in Madison, WI. We sat down with Food & Nutrition Director Steve Youngbauer and Food Service Coordinator Dustin Lundt to find out more.

District Size – enrollment: 27,000

Number of Schools in District: 50

F/R percentage (free and reduced): 50%

District ADP (average daily participation): 51%

Youngbauer’s idea to introduce salad bars into the school lunchrooms first sprouted in 2012. At the time, their meal service was limited to pre-packaged meal choices only. While this system was cost-effective and students could move through the line at record pace, it had a downside. Many kids barely touched the food and much of it ended up in the trash. It was Youngbauer’s hope that introducing salad bars would allow him to serve more fresh and healthy options that would appeal to his students’ appetites. Since then, our program has donated 13 salad bars to MMSD to help them accomplish that goal, and the district has received an additional 2 bars from other sources.

The Growth of the “Garden Bar” Program

The Madison community rallied behind the food service team as well, and what’s more, they recognized the importance of incorporating local produce into the new program. To highlight this emphasis on fresh and local produce, Youngbauer and Lundt rebranded the “salad bars” as “garden bars”. Doing away with the hum-drum name, which to them evoked slow lines, and well… salads in the traditional sense, they chose to define the program by focusing on the garden, a place where a wide variety of fruits and veggies are grown, not just for salads, but for lots of healthy eating choices.

And what would a garden be without the harvest? The bars have allowed Madison Metropolitan to expand their local procurement efforts. They’re now sourcing 20% of all produce from Wisconsin farmers. That means apples, tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli, cauliflower, carrot, sweet potatoes, and kohlrabi, all fresh from the farm. Lundt manages the relationships with their farmers (all eight of them), who were eager to participate in the fledgling Farm to School program. Kicking things off in the summer months when local produce was bountiful, Lundt and Youngbauer have decided to make local procurement a focus for the 2016-2017 school year as well. The shorter growing season in Wisconsin does mean that the district cannot purchase many products year-round; however, they are committed to working with the farmers to get their produce as often as possible.

When we think of local produce, many of us think of a pricier bill, but Madison has experienced something different. “We noticed that staple items can actually be cheaper when purchased locally,” comments Lundt. “It’s really about finding the right balance with the farmers.” Something that they have found challenging, however, is how to process all of the fresh, whole produce. Transitioning from pre-packaged food means that Madison has limited equipment and kitchen space, an obstacle that many districts across the country face. In lieu of making facility changes, the district has decided to work with an outside processing vendor, who is responsible for ensuring all the produce is ready for the garden bars.

Nutrition Education

Another central pillar of MMSD’s Farm to School program is education: teaching the kids about the produce and where it comes from. The district partners with a local non-profit, Research, Education, Action, and Policy (REAP) Food Group, for much of their nutrition education programming. A REAP Food Group team member serves as the district’s Farm to School Manager two days a week, and works with them to create educational and marketing materials to promote their program. REAP also schedules farmer visits so students can learn from the hardworking men and women who are growing their food. Apple farmer Rufus Haucke of Keewaydin Farms in Viola, WI recently visited schools with a dozen apple varietals. He talked with the kids about how the fruit grows and the differences among each type, pairing the lesson with plenty of tasty samples. The benefit of this programming is that “students consume a lot more fruits and vegetables and are more comfortable with the garden bars,” says Youngbauer. MMSD has also taken advantage of grant opportunities, including Chef Ann Foundation’s Project Produce, to make more farm to school education possible.

Reaping the Benefits

Thanks to the program, students throughout the district have a genuine appreciation for the garden bars, and the food service team is “seeing less waste because kids are able to make a choice about what they take.” Youngbauer reflects, “it used to be the same for every student, and now they’re able to make choices that they’re actually going to eat.” And the students definitely notice when those choices are taken away. One school recently had to close their garden bar temporarily while undergoing construction and the kids were not shy about voicing their dismay, repeatedly asking when it would be back.

The Madison Metropolitan School District has made some great strides in their service of fresh food, and this is just the beginning of a more expansive Farm to School Program. They hope to add even more local produce to their garden bars and increase the number of farmers on their supplier list. For Youngbauer, “it’s a matter of looking at the program each year and thinking about how to make it better each year.” That is exactly the kind of thinking that the Farm to School movement is nurturing in schools across the country, and Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools is proud to be part of it.

To learn more about how you can apply for salad bars that will help launch your Farm to School Program, click here.