The pandemic led the food industry to witness major supply-chain disruptions on a national level, growing voices to amplify the message and mission of REAP Food Group: local and regional foods and supply chains are vital to thriving communities and economies.  

Founded 25 years ago under the name Research, Education, Action, and Policy on Food Group, REAP Food Group, or REAP, is a southern Wisconsin nonprofit based in Madison centering, uplifting, and connecting local growers and producers to their communities, businesses, and schools. A core program in REAP’s mission is its Farm to School program, a movement that promotes the use of locally and regionally grown foods in schools through activities and initiatives focused on local food education, school gardens, and food purchasing. Farm to School can be practiced by anyone with a passion for supporting the movement, including students, schools, nonprofits, and households.

The Farm to School program faced a necessary reimagining during the pandemic. No longer were we able to meet with students or bring farmer and culinary guest speakers to classrooms to share their expertise. With social distancing and remote learning, our local snack program for elementary students was put on indefinite hold. 

We used the time to reflect on our past and plan for the future, asking ourselves how to not only support students, but also school nutrition programs, farmers, producers, and educators who want to care for and nurture the future of tomorrow. From educators, farmers, and producers alike, we heard the importance of uplifting and connecting the diverse voices of agriculture to students in the classroom and for students to both see and envision themselves shaping communities through careers in agriculture and local food. 

From school nutrition directors who, while facing the supply-chain disruptions, built creative partnerships with community farmers to ensure students had access to nourishing school meals, we heard needs for increased and consistent funding to support school nutrition programs. REAP considered the importance of relationships and supporting each other and other organizations in its mission to build caring, thriving communities. From listening and reflection, education and advocacy emerged as priorities to reshape REAP’s Farm to School program. 

For education, in late 2023, REAP received a National Institute of Food and Agriculture Food and Agriculture Service Learning Program grant to partner with three area high schools to connect local leaders in food and agriculture with students through classroom speakers and field trips. With an overarching theme of food justice, classrooms can explore many facets of food justice, including food sovereignty, seed saving, and farming, while having the opportunity to hear from BIPOC chefs and food entrepreneurs, women in farming, and community-led health providers. Field trips to area businesses and farms will create opportunities for students to see, touch, hear, feel, and connect conversations from the classroom. To conclude the grant, student voices will lead and shape a community food justice symposium in late 2025, highlighting stories of food-justice initiatives uplifting our communities. 

Outside of the grant, REAP continues to explore creative educational partnerships with other community organizations. A current idea features entrepreneurship, gardening, and culinary arts with students growing, tasting, and selecting local foods to go into a student-designed menu and shared with others through community pop-up events or the UpRoot by REAP food truck. 
For advocacy, REAP joined the School Nutrition Association of Wisconsin and Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin in leading the Healthy School Meals for All Wisconsin Coalition. Healthy School Meals for All is a movement to bring no-cost school meals to all K-12 students throughout Wisconsin. It was born out of the pandemic when the federal government allowed school nutrition programs throughout the country to serve school meals at no cost to all students. After two years, the federal government asked states to return to the pre-pandemic model of charging for school meals. But states had already seen the academic and economic benefits of no-cost school meals for students and began introducing state legislation to ensure free meals continued for students. California became the first to pass Healthy School Meals for All legislation—nine states now offer the same, including Minnesota. 

Healthy School Meals for All Wisconsin is a win for students, households, and school nutrition programs. Access to nourishing school meals for all students means improved focus in the classroom, opening the door for future employment, education, and professional opportunities and nurturing healthy family, social, and community relationships. Households can rest assured their students have daily access to the five food groups of fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and milk at school and don’t have to scramble to pack lunches from home.

School nutrition programs benefit from less administrative paperwork while seeing greater and consistent funding for their program from all students having access. They are, in turn, able to reallocate time and resources to their local food connections, bringing the bounty of Wisconsin to school meal trays. Thanks to all this, Farm to School wins. Students are able to eat, see the change of seasons, and make the connection between the food on their tray and the farmer in their classroom. By building strong school nutrition programs, we can grow the Farm to School movement.

Allison Pfaff Harris is the Farm to School director.

Photographs provided by REAP Food Group.

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