As the warmer, spring weather bought a much-needed reprieve to James Madison Memorial High School students this week, so did a fresh, fun option for school lunch.
This week, REAP Food Group and the Madison Metropolitan School District launched Uproot by Reap, a food truck that will serve healthy, locally sourced lunch options for Madison high school students. The truck will rotate between Madison’s four comprehensive high schools Tuesday through Friday, spending one day at each campus.
Students who qualify for free and reduced lunch are able to use their status for no-cost or discounted meals from the truck, just like in the school’s cafeteria.
REAP and MMSD began conceptualizing the project last year, following the donation of the truck by the Emmi Roth Cheese Company. They also collaborated with students to envision the menu, offering taste-testing and surveys earlier this school year to gather input.
This week, students munched on a Cuban rice bowl, made with garlic-lime chicken, sweet potatoes and black beans. So far, the truck offers the same meal option each week at the schools. All meals served meet federal school lunch requirements. REAP partners with farmers across the state to source ingredients for the meals.
Simone, 18, is a senior at Memorial. She said the dish’s mix of rice, chicken, spices and vegetables “reminded me of my mom’s home cooking.”
Simone enjoyed lunch with her friend Moinee, 15, a sophomore at Memorial. While Moinee usually eats lunch in the cafeteria, she appreciated having another option with the truck.
“The cafeteria has the same food everyday,” she said.
“I don’t want to give (the cafeteria) a bad rap,” Simone chuckled, “but there can be some upgrades... I wish there were more vegetarian options.”
Steve Youngbauer, MMSD’s director of food and nutrition services, said although the truck only had one option today, they plan to have both a meat and a vegetarian dish in the coming weeks.
Youngbauer credited school districts in Minneapolis, Boulder and Indianapolis as inspiration for Uproot.
“They had a vibrant program going in those districts... it's an opportunity for kids to have a fun, nutritious meal, educate them on the local concept, and talk a little bit about where the food comes from,” he said.
“This is a very unique and innovative program that we are piloting here," said Ross Cohen, REAP’s Farm to School education coordinator. "It's a really neat opportunity for the students in Madison and the farmers in Wisconsin.”
Yacouba, 16, is a sophomore at Memorial. He was intrigued by the “unorthodox” approach to school lunch with the food truck.
“I just wanted a different taste today,” he said. “The usual school lunch is kind of bland, but this is great. I like the flavors.”
In addition to the food truck, REAP has also partnered with the district to install garden bars and implement nutrition education programs at several MMSD elementary schools. REAP also facilitates ‘Chef in the Classroom’ at Sherman Middle and East High schools, meant to educate students on culinary basics.
Cohen said he is excited for the program’s growth and hopes MMSD students learn more about healthy, affordable options available at school.
“Lunch is the most important meal of the day and a lot of students aren’t getting the health and nutrition that they should be,” Cohen said. “We hope that (students) take away that you can get a hip, tasty meal at school and understand the importance of eating healthy, fresh and local ingredients to make really neat, cool meals.”
REAP and MMSD will continue to visit local high schools with the truck through the end of the school year and plan to use the truck for the upcoming summer meal program.