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New grants designed to give WI 'farm to school' efforts more muscle

Fresh and organic vegetables at farmers market
Eugen Wais/EwaStudio - stock.adobe.com
Fresh and organic vegetables at farmers market

In making school meals healthier, so-called "Farm to School" programs are nothing new but Wisconsin might see the efforts reach new heights with a grant program taking shape.

Starting Feb. 1, Wisconsin will be one of four states in the Great Lakes region to accept grant applications from community partners developing plans for getting more locally grown foods into school cafeterias. The funding comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Lake Michigan School Food System Innovation Hub is facilitating the effort.

Daithi Wolfe, senior early education analyst for the group Kids Forward, said the primary mission is simple.

"We want local, healthy school food that kids love to eat," Wolfe explained.

Kids Forward is a member of the Innovation Hub and is helping lead Wisconsin's rollout of the grant initiative. Wolfe suggested having healthier options might enhance student outcomes and make more culturally appropriate options available in diverse school districts. He acknowledged a key challenge is the National School Lunch Program is restrictive about reimbursing the types of food served.

Wolfe pointed to efforts in Stevens Point to serve Hmong cuisine to high-school students. It has led to discussions to seek more federal exceptions. Meanwhile, he said enhancing the "Farm-to-School" pipeline could be a big plus in a state like Wisconsin.

"We're not like Iowa, that's a mostly commodity state with corn," Wolfe pointed out. "We have local growers and so, we have all this opportunity to connect local communities to the producers."

He added it benefits local economies, while also helping establish better health outcomes for students. Wolfe noted Wisconsin will prioritize gathering feedback from students so they're clear about the foods they want to eat. The grants range from $10,000 to $250,000. The overall program is designed to last five years.

Mike Moen is a radio news reporter with nearly two decades of experience in the field. He has covered much of the upper Midwest, including Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and the Dakotas. Many of his stories have aired nationally, including several public radio programs.
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