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Published on September 12, 2016

Growing Support: Gundersen among Farm2School partners

Organizations that have individually supported a healthy and sustainable food program are coming together to create a healthier community.

The Coulee Region Farm2School Program is partnering with Gundersen and Mayo Clinic Health System – Franciscan Healthcare. For the past six years, the Coulee Region Farm2School program has been sustained through grant funds. As the program's activities expanded and continued past the duration of grants, a clear need for sustainability was created. School district partners – Bangor, Holmen, La Crescent-Hokah, La Crosse, Onalaska and West Salem – each agreed to contribute towards ongoing program costs. La Crosse County Health Department also provided a match to these funds, but the program was still in need of additional support in order to sustain its current activities.

Both Gundersen Health System and Mayo Clinic Health System have partnered with the program to not only help support the program's mission and vision, but also to further local food purchases in their own cafeterias.

"We are excited to be part of Farm2School. Learning about our food, where it comes from and how to prepare it is an important part of our overall health and is a great fit with Gundersen's mission of caring for the health of our communities," says Sarah Havens, manager of Gundersen Community & Preventive Care Services. "Incorporating common themes in school, the grocery store, employee cafeterias and in local media helps to reinforce this message. Children gain habits very early and if we can help encourage healthy habits they'll carry into adulthood – Farm2School is a fun and innovative way to make a positive impact on health and learning."

"Our involvement with Farm2School and the Harvest of the Month provides an opportunity for our employees and cafeteria guests to sample recipes featuring the same fruits and vegetables their children are taste-testing at school," says Kathy Oslund, lead dietician at Mayo Clinic Health System. "Engaging both children and parents makes it more likely that families will include these healthy foods on their dinner tables."

"It just makes sense for institutions to work together to purchase local foods. Schools and hospitals face many of the same challenges, including sourcing and distribution," says Maggie Smith, Farm2School co-coordinator. "A shared promotional campaign featuring the same Harvest of the Month also helps to catch the attention not only of students, but also of their parents." Each month, the Farm2School program features a Harvest of the Month fruit or vegetable, chosen with seasonality in mind – the foods are usually served fresh, but in winter months locally grown, frozen items are sometimes selected, such as green beans –picked in fall, frozen at an area processor, and then prepared at school during frigid winter. A partnership with Reinhart Food Service and Fifth Season Cooperative in Viroqua, WI, makes sourcing, processing, and distributing the foods easier for the schools.

The Coulee Region Farm2School program's mission, "Creating healthy bodies, minds & communities through local food", is accomplished through activities that include cooking demonstrations led by local chefs & farmers, school gardens planted and harvested by students, and monthly taste tests of new local foods. All 19 public elementary schools have participated in the program for several years, and local foods began appearing on the menus of 14 middle and high schools this fall.

"I have proudly worked with Farm2School for more than six years," says Gundersen executive chef Thomas Sacksteder C.E.C., who has partnered with the program to lead cooking demonstrations. "We found that by having the kids help with food preparation, they were willing to share their experiences with their families and enjoy for a lifetime. Each class we teach has had great success. This experience of educating students in the Farm2school program is the greatest gift I've ever had."

Coulee Region Farm2School is a win-win situation for schools, farmers, children, the economy and the environment. Purchasing locally keeps more money in the pockets of local farms and businesses, and research has shown that fresher products are tastier too, which encourages children to eat more healthy foods.

"Our program also looks to connect families to local food," says Tiffany Lein, Farm2School co-coordinator. "The goal is that children will try the foods at school, bring home the newsletter, and then help make the recipe with their family."

For this reason, the program provides monthly newsletters for parents and school staff that provide information about where to find the Harvest of the Month, how to choose, store and prepare it. Additional recipes and info about the program can be found at laxf2s.org.

"Healthy food is good medicine," adds Dr. Tim Johnson, CEO of Mayo Clinic Health System, "We know that what we eat affects our bodies and our minds, that's why helping people forge positive relationships with nourishing food and supporting their efforts to make good choices is so important to us. La Crosse County has been a leader in this area with the Farm2School program. This new partnership provides an opportunity for all of us to work together to further the program and improve the health of people in our community."

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