By Liz Schnee
Imagine a school cafeteria where children are excited to eat their vegetables. That’s the vision the Madison non-profit REAP Food Group is working towards. For the last 18 years, REAP has created a more just and sustainable food system in Madison with projects like their Farm-to-Business and Farm-to-School programs. Their goal is to work with the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) to increase the community’s access to healthy food choices, to provide nutrition education opportunities for children and to support the Wisconsin agricultural market.
REAP knows that trying new foods can be scary, especially for kids. The group tries to alleviate that stress by ma
king new foods fun for elementary school students.
Farm-to-School Coordinator Emily Latham says, “Kids may see the veggies on garden bar, but if they don’t have a connection with it, they won’t want to eat them.”
A main focus of the program is to expose elementary-aged students to healthy foods and to encourage them to think about where it comes from. For middle and high school students, the focus is on teaching culinary skills and sustainability concepts.
Latham reported that one of her favorite memories on the job was when the REAP classroom education group asked the children to deconstruct where their food came from, and one student had a big revelation and exclaimed, “All of my food comes from the dirt?!”
In addition to providing programming, REAP also prepares fresh fruit and vegetable snacks for schools in the district, featuring in-season produce from nearby Wisconsin farms. This provides kids the chance to eat things like kohlrabi and sweet potato sticks.
This summer, REAP will launch a new partnership between the City of Madison Parks Department, the Public Health department and the MMSD to bring an extended meal program to Madison city parks. Students will be able to go to any of the participating park locations to receive a free lunch from the school district using local produce.
According to Latham, this exciting expansion is just more proof that “The city of Madison is invested in this project.”
University of Wisconsin-Madison students play an essential role in REAP’s success. Students donate their time and money to support REAP’s mission of a healthier Madison by leading lessons and prepping snacks alongside Americorp members. In fact, REAP is looking for volunteers for a community based farm-to-school event on May 15th from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. The event will invite all ages to celebrate farm-to-school work with a garden scavenger hunt, cooking demonstrations by Madison chefs and activities to promote physical fitness. Students interested in volunteering at the event or for other programming are encouraged to contact Emily Latham at Emilyl@reapfoodgroup.org.
So maybe it’s not as hard as we thought to get kids excited about eating their vegetables. All it takes is some taste-testing, quality Wisconsin food and maybe some people dressed up as giant broccoli.