A provision in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal would cut funding for a program that helps supply Wisconsin schools with local food, a move experts and political leaders say would be detrimental to student nutrition and the area’s economy.
As part of his 2017-’19 biennial budget, Walker proposed eliminating the state’s farm-to-school coordinator and a 15-member council that advises the Legislature on bringing local food into schools. The proposal would save $86,200 per year.
Wisconsin has been a pioneer of the farm-to-school movement, creating the position of statewide coordinator within its Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in 2009. Beth Hanna, the outreach manager at Community GroundWorks and an expert on Wisconsin farm-to-school, said these programs are important because they benefit not only students, but entire communities.
“It supports our farmers, it supports our job growth in the agricultural sector, it supports healthy schools, it supports healthy institutions,” Hanna said. “When we have economic growth and we have healthy children in schools, we have a healthier community overall.”
Hanna said Walker’s proposed cut would stifle the state’s ability to support farm-to-school programs.
“I think the biggest issue we see with this cut is not necessarily the on-the-ground programs ... but really that forward-thinking strategic planning for farm-to-school as a whole,” Hanna said. “It’s supporting both the farming side and the institution side to give them the technical assistance they’re looking for, the support that they’re needing, the training they’re needing.”
Vanessa Herald, the Farm to School outreach specialist in UW-Madison’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, echoed Hanna’s concerns. She said the proposal’s elimination of the farm-to-school coordinator would keep the state program from reaching its potential.
“Farm-to-school in Wisconsin has seen really tremendous growth in capacity and ability and innovative projects and programs with the program director in place,” Herald said. “That would slow down, and we wouldn’t be able to have the same innovation and growth and continue to be a national leader.”
The USDA reports that 164 school districts and private schools in the state have purchased food from local farmers.
Still, over 400 school districts have not bought food from local sources. But according to Herald, the farm-to-school movement’s “seed has really grown” in Wisconsin in recent years, and could reach even more communities if given the opportunity.
“[It] has a lot of potential for growth, with benefits to Wisconsin growers and processors and distributors, as long as there’s someone there to help foster it,” Herald said. “It’s easy to see farm to school and just think about kids in schools, but it really is something a lot bigger.”
Madison Mayor Paul Soglin also voiced his concern about the proposal, criticizing Walker for sending the message that “the health of Wisconsin schoolchildren and vitality of Wisconsin farmers is unimportant when the State can save a few pennies.”
“[The program coordinator] has secured hundreds of thousands in dollars and grants and connected millions of dollars in funding to Wisconsin farmers,” Soglin said in a statement. “It would appear that this position, as well as the Farm to School Advisory Council, have been pretty good investments for the state.”
There is currently no sitting state farm-to-school director, as the most recent coordinator stepped down in May.
Members of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee will debate and amend Walker’s budget in the coming months.