A Wisconsin nonprofit has recently partnered with Madison Metropolitan Schools to launch a food truck serving locally-sourced meals at weekly high school lunchtimes in the district.
Uproot, the name of the new food truck program, is part of REAP Food Group’s larger Farm to School initiative which has previously offered nutrition education lessons for local elementary schools and helped the district procure produce for lunches and snacks.
The Uproot truck will visit each of the four Madison public high schools once a week and serve new menu items with each visit. Last week’s menu featured a Cuban chicken rice bowl with locally-grown sweet potatoes and black beans.
REAP coordinator Ross Cohen describes the Uproot food truck as a hip and alternative meal — fresh, healthy and affordable food that is easy to grab and go. Hopefully it’s different than what a high schooler will see in their daily cafeteria, Cohen said.
He sees the idea as very appealing to young people, since the truck served nearly 100 lunches at Memorial High School last week.
“I think the kids are being really receptive,” Cohen said.
REAP Food Group has been working in Dane County since 1997 to build connections between local, sustainable food producers and consumers throughout southcentral Wisconsin.
Cohen describes their mission as equally focused on the environment, health and economics.
“Sustainable agriculture and farming practices are beneficial for the Earth and environment and also beneficial for people’s health,” Cohen said. “By focusing on our local farmers, we are helping to promote and benefit the local economy.”
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Dane County appears to be a region ripe for potential in expanding its sustainable local agriculture.
University of Wisconsin professor in the School of Human Ecology Lydia Zepeda said the county already hosts an abundance of farmer’s markets, consumer-support agriculture and restaurants that buy local produce.
Access to locally-grown food can provide security and a variety of economic and social benefits to both producers and consumers in a community like Dane County, Zepeda said.
“Who is going to farm in the future and what happens if young people do not?” Zepeda said. “Supporting these farmers is a way to ensure we have farmers who can feed us in the future. Economically supporting local food helps out small farmer and rural communities.”
Zepeda also sees local, sustainable agriculture as having great potential for combatting rising food-related illnesses like obesity and Type II Diabetes. She also argued decentralized, local food production is essential to preventing mass outbreaks of contamination observed in recent product recalls.
In the UW dining halls, around 12 percent of the food served is both locally grown and manufactured, executive chef Paul Sprunger said. He noted the dairy offerings, in particular, are entirely represented by Wisconsin-based producers.
UW has also been a partner with REAP Food Group for the last three years, and they frequently help connect them with local produce vendors, Sprunger said.
“What REAP Food Group has done for us is that it has given us the ability to tell our story a little bit better,” Sprunger said. “We have these signs and if you walk through the marketplace you’ll see them — ‘Buy fresh, buy local,’ ‘Grande Cheese’ at our pizza station, ‘Babcock Dairy’ by the milk.”
Sprunger said because of the public nature of the dining halls, any vendors they purchase from face a strict set of risk management and health regulations. This often slows down relationships and transactions with local farmers. The state has a stringent definition of what constitutes “local,” applied at every step of production, which also tends to officially deflate the numbers of local food purchases.
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Sprunger recognizes the dining halls are faced with a unique challenge in serving a massive volume of students at economical rates. Many local vendors simply cannot keep up with the quantity of food required, particularly in a school year separate from ideal growing seasons.
“We serve about 15,000 consumers a day in all of housing,” Sprunger said. “When I buy hamburger, I’m buying 500 pounds. We are buying lots of product that some people just aren’t going to have.”
Student affordability also remains at the core of mission and it often takes precedence over locality when selecting producers. But Sprunger expressed willingness to select more expensive items with local, sustainable, organic sourcing if students are willing to pay for them.
Though the dining halls face a steep list of obstacles in feeding the UW campus, Sprunger hopes to increase their amount of local purchases the years to come.
“It is important to us, [and] we do as much of it as we can” Sprunger said. “But we also know there’s room to grow there and we can buy more locally. It is being affiliated with, say, REAP Food Group that allows us to build relationships with people and allow us to meet new farmers.”