State budget bucks national trend, cuts farm to school coordinator

Students at Royall Elementary School in Elroy take a bite of an apple from Northwoods Orchards and Farm Market as a part of Apple Crunch Day, an event that is part of the national farm-to-school movement. Wisconsin was an early adopter of the program but could be one of the first to eliminate a statewide coordinator under Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal.

Gov. Scott Walker’s budget cuts funding for a program that brings locally grown food into public schools, reversing a trend the state helped pioneer eight years ago.

In 2009 Wisconsin was one of the first to create a statewide farm-to-school program coordinator, said Helen Dombalis, programs director for the National Farm to School Network.

The position at the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has been vacant since May when the previous coordinator took a job as manager of the Dane County Farmers’ Market.

The state also created a 15-member council composed of agriculture, health care and education advocates who advise DATCP and the Legislature on farm-to-school matters. The council last met on Jan. 30.

Both would be eliminated under Walker’s 2017-19 budget proposal, saving $86,200 a year.

Dombalis said as of 2015 there were 19 states with a full-time coordinator and 13 others with part-time coordinators, with more states looking to add the position. Wisconsin would be among the first to eliminate the position.

“We see Wisconsin as the gold standard because they have committed resources to a coordinated effort including a program for farm-to-schools through a state agency,” Dombalis said. “We’re seeing more positions being created, and that’s why Wisconsin is seen as a national model.”

The national farm-to-school movement dates back 20 years with efforts by active parents in California and Florida pushing public schools to provide healthier, locally sourced snacks and lunches. It expanded to pilot programs in other states with assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The program focuses on three areas: getting locally grown and produced food into school meals and snacks, building school gardens and promoting agricultural education in schools. Dombalis’ group has named October national farm-to-school month and sponsored events such as a day when students across the Midwest bite into a locally grown apple at the same moment.

The Wisconsin program coordinator has overseen grant applications, advised school districts on how to connect with local suppliers and expanded the program into other institutions such as hospitals.

Sarah Elliott, the former Wisconsin program coordinator, said during her two years in the role she secured more than $200,000 in grants, diverted $1.4 million in federal school lunch funding to local farmers and helped bring the national farm-to-school conference to Madison last year, which pumped $1 million into the local economy, according to the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“That’s a really exciting investment for the state,” Elliott said. “It not only helps provide better food for our kids, but it provides opportunities for our farmers.”

In 2015, 164 Wisconsin school districts and private schools reported purchasing $9.2 million worth of food from local farmers, or about 10 percent of their food budgets, according to the USDA. More than 400 school districts reported no local purchases, indicating a potentially large untapped market.

Vanessa Herald, a farm-to-school outreach specialist at UW-Madison’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, said the DATCP coordinator not only helped expand the access local farmers have to schools but also has started expanding the reach of the program to day care centers and hospitals.

“The position being housed at DATCP is really, really valuable,” Herald said. “There’s a real expertise and connection to growers that DATCP offers in maintaining the program.”

Nick Levendofsky, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Farmers Union, said restoring the farm-to-school coordinator will be one of the items on his members’ agendas when they hold a lobbying day at the Capitol on Tuesday.

“It’s a program that brings a lot to the table when it comes to Wisconsin-grown foods,” Levendofsky said. “It’s one of the greatest education tools we have in showing and telling our kids where their food comes from, and we need to do that.”

Levendofsky acknowledged if the state doesn’t provide such a position, the industry might step in to fill the need, but “money is always the big issue.”

DATCP proposed keeping the position in its budget request but offered up eliminating it to comply with a new state law requiring suggestions for how to cut 5 percent from its annual budget.

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson referred questions to DATCP spokesman Bill Cosh, who said the department hired a part-time employee to oversee compliance with an existing farm-to-school grant as part of its broader Wisconsin Foods Program.

Cosh noted the change does not affect a separate Americorps Farm to School grant program that is federally funded, though Elliott said those funds go primarily to healthy nutrition efforts in schools and do not facilitate making the supply chain connection between farmers and public institutions.

“We are going to still be able to administer the grants and there will be no disruption of services,” Cosh said. “This approach provides a more efficient way to administer the program.”

“(The farm-to-school program) is a really exciting investment for the state. It not only helps provide better food for our kids, but it provides opportunities for our farmers.” Sarah Elliott
former state program coordinator

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