The Wisconsin Legislature and governor have an opportunity to show their support for Wisconsin agriculture by reviving a program that is facing elimination in the 2017-2019 state budget.
A letter was hand-delivered and emailed to all members of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee April 20 urging them to support the Farm-to-School Program, which is being cut in the proposed state budget “to reflect budget efficiency measures.”
According to farm-to-school advocates, the program spurs more than $9 million in purchases of Wisconsin-grown and -processed foods by Wisconsin schools each year, for more than 500,000 students in 390 programs. Supporters say funding is vital to coordinate the program and keep in growing.
Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel explained in March that when former Farm-to-School Program coordinator Sarah Elliott left her position in 2016 to take a job as manager of the Dane County Farmers’ Market, her position was left vacant. He said with a mandate by the governor to trim the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s budget by 5 percent, tough decisions have to be made, and one of them was the elimination of the farm-to-school position.
Brancel said there has been a line item in the state budget in recent years that refers to a grants program associated with the Farm-to-School Program, but there has never been any money allocated for the grants.
“Now that the line item is being removed, people think they’re closing the funding, but there has never been funding,” he said.
Some of the duties Elliott carried out when she coordinated the program have been transferred to Kietra Olson, program manager for the agency’s Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin Program, Brancel said. The agency also hired a limited-term employee to apply for federal grants to aid farm-to-school efforts.
In the letter to legislators, farm-to-school proponents urged the Legislature to include funding for a program director position. The letter didn’t mention the grants.
The Farm-to-School Program director has been instrumental in awards of more than $200,000 of federal grant funds to conduct trainings and develop Wisconsin supply chains that encourage procurement of Wisconsin-grown foods including potatoes, yogurt and applesauce, a Wisconsin Farmers Union news release about the program said.
In the past, the program director has helped connect K-12 public and private schools, early care centers, hospitals, universities and other institutions with Wisconsin-grown and processed fruits, vegetables, dairy products, proteins and other foods for breakfasts, lunches and snacks.
The news release said the program “improves farmers’ incomes and direct access to steady institutional markets.”
Forty-seven percent of surveyed Wisconsin school districts are planning to begin or increase purchases of Wisconsin-produced foods, the news release said.
“Over half of these sites are interested in making more purchases, but are challenged to find suppliers or farmers,” the letter to legislators notes. “Support from the Wisconsin Farm-to-School Program director is invaluable in developing these new opportunities.”
The letter to Joint Finance Committee members was co-signed by 19 farm groups, food processors, school nutrition professionals, public health, school administrators and educators. Both the Wisconsin Farmers Union and the Wisconsin Farm Bureau, who generally don’t agree on much of anything, signed the letter.
It is typical at state budget time for organizations to come out of the woodwork, with their hands palms up, asking for money. The Legislature and governor obviously can’t fund everything that everyone wants.
But this is not an extravagant ask by any means. In fact the groups aren’t asking for anything new, they are just asking that the position be retained. Even without grant money, the farm-to-school coordinator can do a lot of good, helping connect local producers with schools and other institutions that want to consume local, nutritious food. Without the coordinator, schools seek out farm products in a somewhat unorganized distribution system.
The local foods movement isn’t going away anytime soon, but as it grows, it needs people to help connect growers and institutions. The Legislature should make the Farm-to-School Program a priority as it finalizes the 2017-2019 state budget.