MADISON — In 2010, the Wisconsin state Legislature passed Act 293, creating the Farm to School program to connect schools with nearby farms and provide children with local produce, dairy and other foods in school breakfasts, lunches and snacks. The program also helps children develop healthy eating habits through nutritional, ecological and agricultural education.

Charlotte Litjens, who has been the program’s director since last April, recently presented to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection board on the program’s movements over the past year.

In 2018, one of her main focuses was to aid in the development of leadership structure, policies and procedures for the DATCP Farm to School Council. At the conclusion of the year, she helped the council produce its annual report, which highlighted several statewide Farm to School and early care activities.

There were many accomplishments to celebrate in 2018, including the purchase of $9.2 million in products from Wisconsin farmers that went into 517 participating school districts throughout the state. Almost half the school districts in Wisconsin are participating in Farm to School, Litjens said, using $1.8 million in grant dollars for the program and early care education.

More than 170 farms and orchards participated in the Farm to School program last year, with Farm to School staff providing direct technical assistance to 242 farmers, educators and school nutrition directors statewide. Litjens assisted those farmers in getting their products into schools, serving as a collaborator and consultant to farm businesses, listening to them and finding ways to make locally produced items easier to order within the supply chain.

She highlighted two direct consulting projects, in particular, both of which received Dairy Processor Grants through the Wisconsin DATCP for 2019. These grants, which totaled $200,000, were awarded to 10 businesses to foster innovation, improve profitability and sustain the long-term viability of Wisconsin’s dairy processing facilities.

One grant of $20,000 went to Sassy Cow Creamery of Columbus. The family-owned dairy business is exploring the use of bulk milk dispensers in schools instead of milk in cartons. There is some data to support that locally sourced milk from a bulk dispenser tastes better to children than milk from a carton, but further research needs to be done.

Litjens said about 5 percent of school districts in Wisconsin have dropped the federal school lunch program, allowing them to explore the option of having locally sourced milk in their schools. Part of her job has been to reach out to those schools and see if they are interested in incorporating more local foods into their school’s meal programs. She noted that she has seen milk sales increase in districts that have switched to locally sourced milk.

There also is a demand for locally sourced yogurt in schools, Litjens said. Westby Cooperative Creamery, the recipient of a $15,000 Dairy Processor Grant, plans to use their funding to explore a pilot bulk yogurt dispensary product in schools. If it catches on at the school, it could get the attention of other institutional buyers, such as hotels.

“I’m excited to see these projects develop in the future,” she said.

While the program is seeing success, the Farm to School Council presented two key recommendations in their executive summary of 2018.

First, they recommended the funding of a grant program for supply chain partners, farmers and schools to assist schools and early care sites with equipment, extra labor and supplies to get started with Farm to School. Currently, 25 states provide grant programs for farm to institution, funded by private foundations, public-private partnerships and state budget allocations.

Secondly, the council recommended an increase in the school meal reimbursement rate while also incentivizing local purchases. Several states already provide 5 to 15 additional cents per plate for local purchases, with the idea that an incentive would increase purchasing of local foods, which, in turn, encourages investment of school meal dollars and supports job growth.

Litjens sees the need for an online resource to aid in finding locally sourced dairy products. Having this resource would provide “a more efficient transfer of information” and make it easier for her to connect Wisconsin businesses to schools and early care programs.

To learn more about Farm to School, including how to find a farmer in your area, visit https://datcp.wi.gov/Pages/Growing_WI/FarmToSchool.aspx. Litjens can be contacted by calling 608-224-5017 or emailing Charlotte.Litjens@Wisconsin.gov.