The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) was launched after World War II with a healthy goal: Supply the nation’s schoolchildren with the nutrition they need to succeed at school and in the world.
But somewhere along the way, things went south. School lunches became loaded with unhealthy processed foods—and that, in turn, has had a broad impact on children’s health. One 2010 Michigan study found that obese children differed in three ways from their healthy peers: They spent more time in front of a screen, less time on physical activities, and they ate more school lunches.
In other words, in just five or six decades, the school lunch program designed to keep kids healthy had morphed into something that actually helped make them sick.
The farm-to-school movement emerged to help fix this state of affairs. Rather than highly processed and unappetizing lunches that make kids sick, farm-to-school lunches are concocted from fresh, local fare that is healthy not only for school kids, but also for local farm economies.
One of the organizations key in the farm-to-school movement in the state of Wisconsin is REAP Food Group, based in Madison, the state’s capitol. Since it was founded 16 years ago, REAP has helped thousands of schoolchildren learn about—and enjoy—healthy, fresh foods.
REAP’s farm-to-school program encompasses a variety of programs. The organization connects Madison school districts to local farms that provide food for school lunches and snacks. REAP also provides educational options, including placing area chefs in classrooms and developing classroom curriculum around healthy food choices.
But the farm-to-school programs are only one aspect of REAP’s work to build awareness and support for Madison’s “foodshed.” Other activities include publishing the Southern Wisconsin Farm Fresh Atlas, that connects food shoppers with area growers, and managing Southern Wisconsin’s the Buy Fresh, Buy Local program, which connects restaurants to farmers who can supply ingredients.
The group also sponsors a wide variety of events, most notably the Food for Thought Festival, which for 16 years attracted more than half-a-million visitors to a forum of tastings, workshops and demonstrations. Recently, Food For Thought has been replaced by the Family Food Fest, which is a farm-to-school event celebrating the best in nutritious, delicious food for children and families, as well as smaller gatherings hosted year-round, including food-themed festivals timed to spring planting and fall harvest.
What ties all these activities, according to REAP board member Terese Allen, is the idea of building a network of farmers and consumers united in their desire for healthy, fresh, local foods. “We try to connect all kinds of eaters from all walks of life with the people who grow right in their region,” Allen explains. “We’re in schools, we’re in restaurants, we’re in grocery stores, we’re in health-care facilities trying to be a good connector between eaters and growers.”
Organic Valley is committed to supporting its local communities and is happy to sponsor REAP Food Group for its impact on the lives of community members.