Interview with Miriam Grunes

Air Date: August 31, 2015

Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.

THERESA MARQUEZ: Welcome back to Rootstock Radio. Today I’m speaking with Miriam Grunes, the dedicated executive director of REAP Food [Group]. REAP, based here in Madison, Wisconsin, is dedicated to connecting local farmers with local eaters. Her work is an inspiration. Here’s Miriam.

TM: Miriam Grunes is here with me today in beautiful Madison, Wisconsin. Well, if I were just to give a good scan of all the things you’re doing at REAP, I would say that you are deeply in the Good Food Movement and really bringing good food to the people who really need it. Let’s start with some of the people who really, really need it, [unclear] people, the children who really need it, and that’s in schools. I’m very impressed with your Farm to School program. Can you talk a little bit about that?

MIRIAM GRUNES: Yeah, you probably can’t get me to stop talking about that! Our Farm to School program—we do a lot of work at REAP, and we’re trying to effect change in the food system in lots of ways. But I would really say that our Farm to School program is the biggest maybe marquee program of what we do, and we put a lot of our effort into it. We’ve been working in Farm to School work for a little over a decade. Nobody thought it would be fast and easy, because it’s a really entrenched, difficult system to try to change, with all sorts of very reasonable barriers for why it hasn’t changed. But progress is being made, and the impacts on the kids is what obviously keeps us all in it and excited to keep coming back. And especially with the changes we’ve seen in demographics in schools and the way schools are struggling just to stay afloat with financing in our communities, to be able to be bringing good fresh food, connecting them to where their food comes from, especially in an urban setting, where a lot of these kids don’t have exposure—we’ve come a long way. I think I heard the average urban kid is seven generations separated from farm. So it’s not like you go back to Grandma’s and it’s still familiar territory anymore for these kids. It’s just not. So what we’re able to do there, both to effect change in the quality and the nutritional value and the character of the lunch itself but also in the educational programming, it keeps us inspiring. [inspired?]

TM: Am I correct in saying that you actually provide snacks in many of the schools?

MG: Yeah, we do. We started doing that quite a few years ago, thinking we went into Farm to School thinking we were going to change school lunch, and it was going to take about a year and we were going to figure it out, and then all of a sudden school lunch would be different. And the reality at the time, which—and again, this is over a decade ago—we thought that we would approach our school district, learn what they’re serving, and then just see what we couldn’t do to substitute local for what they were serving from conventional sources. Only to learn that, at least at the time, in fresh fruits and vegetables, they were serving about, I think the number was like six dollars a year per child in fresh fruits and vegetables. So there was plenty of canned and frozen and other fruits and vegetables, but not fresh, and really just two or three kinds: broccoli florets, maybe some lettuce, and onions or something like that. So we said, gosh, I don’t know that that’s really the perfect match for our local farming community, and it’s not enough of an economic impact to make them interested, because the reality is we probably will have to ask farmers to sell at their very basic wholesale prices, and we would never ask farmers to sell for less than that. But to do that and have it be so little, and not the products they really want to grow anyway, it just clearly wasn’t the perfect fit. And we were kind of dismayed to learn that this is going to take a while. So in that—and your question was about the snack—we thought, what is it we can do quicker to start getting local fresh fruits and vegies to kids and exposing them to it and teaching them about where their food comes from, that maybe is outside of the lunchroom itself, as we continue to work with that? So we developed this snack program, and it started with just four schools, and all volunteers went to a local business that let us use their certified kitchen. And we chopped up the carrot sticks and we chopped up the kohlrabi sticks, and we got the local PTOs at the schools to put forth a little money to help pay for the snacks. And four schools, not even the whole year but during kind of the fall growing season, got a weekly snack for every kid in the school. And other schools wanted it, and more schools wanted it. And we, last year, were serving our local snack at thirteen Madison elementary schools, which is over five thousand kids a week. We do it all school year long now, right through the depths of winter. We’re finding still the root crops that have been held, the kohlrabi and the carrots and sweet potatoes, so that we can go all winter long. And then everybody is super excited when spring comes and they can have something besides carrots and kohlrabi, and we can bring out the spinach and the asparagus. And we’ve been able to now get it funded through the national USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Grant Program. And this is a great program that allows schools who must qualify based on the need of the school, so low-income schools—they need to have at least fifty percent free and reduced lunch kids at their school to qualify. But then they can apply for funding to get snacks. And REAP has been providing to these Madison schools in that program the once-a-week snack for the last four or five years.

TM: And you know, this education component you talked about—so you’ve developed, to go along with the once-a-week snack in these schools, an education program. What’s that about?

MG: Yeah, in the middle and the high schools we do a Chef in the Classroom program that’s very fun, bringing chefs to the kids, the kind of slightly older kids, not with the elementary kids. But give them some basic culinary schools to help them build relationships. A lot of these kids really have had minimal exposure to fresh food and making food from scratch, and it’s a real eye-opener for them to make spring rolls, to make sopes. So we do some kind of culturally diverse and ethnic recipes so that the kids, everybody in the classroom feels like they can be connected to a piece of this. And anecdotally we find the kids like to take these recipes home, start making these recipes with their families. And they’re really just building their ability to eat healthier for a lifetime.

TM: You know, I am so jealous about the fact that you bring chefs into schools. And you know, when you started this, which is already what, eleven, twelve years ago, and you brought these healthier foods into the school, like carrot sticks and kohlrabi and just fresh vegetables and even fresh fruit, was that hard for the kids? Did you find the kids liked it?

MG: Yeah! When we started this snack program, what we were hearing from teachers is kids tend to bring their own snacks, and at the time, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos was the coveted snack. That’s what the kids wanted to bring. And sometimes, because they didn’t have a lot of control over this at the time, it would be accompanied by a Mountain Dew. And seriously, this is what kids were bringing, and then expected to sit at their desk and focus on their schoolwork. And teachers have known forever that that’s not probably a good recipe for academic success. So yes, when we first started the fresh fruit and vegies snack program, there certainly were kids that were hesitant. There are still kids that are hesitant, and I wouldn’t say every child eats everything. But they’re all asked to taste, they’re all asked to try everything. We ask teachers to have a positive attitude as well—even the teachers sometimes don’t always have the most positive attitude about fruits and vegies. But it has been such a resounding success. We do surveys every single year and ask for the stories of “What’s happened with your classroom with this? What’s happened with the children?” We’ve gotten some great… There was one story of a woman who, it was actually her daughter’s birthday, so she happened to come in on vegie snack day, and she’s a member of REAP and she’s a huge supporter of REAP so she knew us well. And so after they had their snack, which happened to be whole leaves of raw spinach, and she served the cupcakes for the birthday, a child came up to her and said, “Can I have seconds?” And she said, “Oh, no, no, honey, I’m sorry—there’s just one cupcake per child.” And he said, “No, I meant of the spinach.” And yes, the kohlrabi story for us is just really fascinating, because we kind of chose kohlrabi as a snack item, more based on the fact that it was something that our farmers can grow and grow well, that it stores well into the winter, that it’s got a good crunch and a good texture and it tastes delicious. But most kids hadn’t tried it before; most adults probably haven’t tried eating kohlrabi, or much of it. But we just started serving it every week, and the first week was probably a couple little nibbles; and the next week, okay, well, this is familiar. And now the children are just so used to raw kohlrabi that we’re coming back to what we’re doing with our schools is we’re back and working in the lunchroom again, and we’re putting salad bars in our schools, and our schools want to put kohlrabi sticks in the salad bar because they know the kids are used to eating it from the snacks. So with an organization like REAP, you try some things and you never quite know where that path is going to take us. But it’s kind of a beautiful thing now to hear food service staff at a pretty large school district saying, “Yeah, how do we get that kohlrabi in our salad bar?”

TM: You know, one of the things I’m always curious about, and that is—and I’ve talked to quite a few people who do a lot of Farm to School things—and a lot of them talk about the difficulty of distribution, of even though you may be buying from a farm twenty miles away, getting that local food into the school, that’s a lot harder than people can imagine.

MG: Oh, it is so hard! And I wouldn’t say we’ve jumped over all the hurdles yet. We’ve learned a lot through the snack program. And REAP, when we started, we never intended to be a food processor. That wasn’t a plan for a small nonprofit. But we were not able to find someone who would process and distribute the food for these snacks. And we said, well, let’s just do it ourselves. We’ll learn a lot. Hopefully what we learn will inform that next startup business, or someone else. We’ll have data about how much waste was involved. We’ll have data about what kind of vegetables, how many person-hours it took to do it. We’ll have data about how the food got to us and how we moved it back on to the school sites. And we have learned a ton. We’ve learned that, surprisingly enough, green beans take a really long time to process, even though it seems like they’re just there. But the amount of time it takes to wash and cull through for the good ones, and the kids really need you to snap off the stem—they don’t like the stem. We did learn you can leave the curl on the end, even though we thought at first you have to cut that part off. But to serve a whole raw green bean to a kid, it actually took a lot more time than we thought. Surprisingly, we can process kohlrabi faster than we can process green beans. But that’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t know to even think about as a school district. So that’s the kind of pieces that the snack program informed us of. Last summer, for the first time, we worked closely with the Madison school district to try to get some more local food into their summer meal program. I think a lot of people don’t realize that, especially for children from low-income families, summer is really a food-insecure time, and they rely on that school lunch for a significant piece of their nutrition in the day. And so the USDA actually has a wonderful program that districts can serve free lunch to any child who is registered in their district, at school sites throughout the summer. And the Madison Metropolitan School District has, I think it’s fortyish sites that they’re serving at this summer. And last summer, for the first time, we worked with them to say, what kind of—now we’re talking growing season, it’s summer, we have a lot more options than we do in October through December to get you some fresh produce. What is it we can get into that summer program? So we worked with them, and again, using the model we do for our snack program, we did it ourselves—we ordered the food, we processed the food, we sent the food back to them. They then put it out into their lunches. And we learned a ton. And we said, but we don’t want to be, as the small nonprofit organization, we would never be set up to do it at the scale that will work for school food year-round. We need to find another vehicle for this. So this summer we are thrilled, through a small pilot we did last fall, that the Innovation Kitchen in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, which is a wonderful little incubator kitchen and small processing kitchen that utilizes the support and labor from disabled citizens to help build their job skills and give them work during the day, they have a nice facility. We worked with them just a little bit in the winter. And they successfully bid on the Madison summer meal program, to do fresh fruit and vegetables for the summer. So two to three days a week, product is flowing from farm stand to the Innovation Kitchen, where it is processed, and then they are delivering back to the school district.

TM: You mentioned salad bars. Are those in the high schools, or are they—

MG: They’re actually across the board. They’re not in every school yet, but they are in elementary, middle, and high schools, some of each. Conversations with the school district three or four years ago came to salad bars being a strategic goal. And we were able, through a very small grant at the time, to purchase just three salad bars and donate them to the school district to pilot in a few schools and see what could happen. So Madison, I think, not unlike many larger school districts, does their food service out of a centralized food facility. The food is all prepared in what was called a hot pack and a cold pack. And kind of picture airline food: you get this little container with a plastic or foil lid on it that you peel off, and there’s your little compartment. And the hot pack might have your burger and your tater tots, and your cold pack might have the bun and the pickle and some carrot sticks. And that’s been the model of school food around our country for a very, very long time. So we know that when children are offered fresh fruits and vegetables, one, in a more appealing format, they’re just going to be more likely to be attracted to it and try things. And two, there’s just such good evidence base that when children have choices about what they eat, they will pick things and they will eat what they take. So salad bar is perfect. So the difficulty for a large district like Madison—and it’s 26,000 kids; I mean, it’s a lot of meals they’re serving. So the difficulty is now we’ve got two parallel structures. We’ve got all these schools, we’re making our cold packs and assembly-line putting that together. And now we’re trying to also pack, kind of in bulk, with tongs, and how do you wash the trays because schools don’t have dishwashers anymore. Schools barely have lunchrooms—some of the kids eat in the gym. That’s what our schools look like. So the fact that they were willing to try it and put that additional effort in, to give these salad bars a chance… And the fear that, will the kids get through it fast enough? Because they’ve only got about twenty minutes for lunch, and they’ve got to get them in and out of there. The challenges for what our district is dealing with in these schools, it’s just phenomenal. And it’s so easy to, “It should be different,” and demonize, and “Why don’t they do it better?” And once you start getting into it and learning about what they’re up against to try to get good food to our kids, it’s pretty heroic stuff that they’re doing. And there isn’t one person in the food service industry that doesn’t want to serve the children delicious and healthy food. So they’re grateful for the support we can give. Salad bar story continues. Three salad bars through various means—we now have twenty-nine salad bars in Madison’s forty-eight schools. But it’s been a phenomenal success. And from the district’s point of view, they’re delighted by seeing how the kids have embraced the salad bars. They love to see that fresh food is getting into the kids. And even from a food waste perspective, they are finding that when they put the carrot sticks in the cold pack, sometimes they’re just thrown away. And that’s cost for them—even if the child doesn’t eat it, that’s cost for them. If it’s on the salad bar, kids don’t tend to take it unless they intend to eat it.

TM: And also probably the salad bar trains children to take what they’re going to eat.

MG: Yeah, we do some fun activities. When a salad bar goes into a new school, we hike our AmeriCorps out there, wearing their vegie costumes, and they’re so enthusiastic, and they’re showing the kids, “We don’t lick the tongs, and we don’t sneeze on the vegies”—like just basics of using it, for a kindergartener, can you imagine? And then also, “And what is this person doing?” Like have an AmeriCorps [person] like just piling way too much food on their plate, and go “What’s wrong with that?” and letting the kids go, “No, she shouldn’t take so much.” And so just encouraging them, “Try one of everything the first day, learn what you like, try new things, but don’t take more than you’re probably going to eat.

TM: What a nice story about the AmeriCorps and just what good work that they do. I’m very excited that you’re telling me that they’re successful and the kids really want the salad. Because once again, I keep wondering, you know, are kids not eating or wanting to eat fresh fruits and vegetables? And it sounds to me that it’s just a matter of getting used to, tasting it…

MG: Yeah, just keep providing the opportunity. Sometimes it takes three, four, even ten exposures of a new food for a kid to learn to start to accept it. So you just keep offering. I mean, it’s like parenting—you just keep offering.

TM: You’ve just got to be tenacious.

MG: You do.

TM: Miriam, the other thing I see that you are involved in at REAP is Buy Local. Did you all start the Madison Buy Local?

MG: We did. Well, there’s actually a couple things going on in Madison. There’s a Dane Buy Local chapter, which is a wonderful sister nonprofit organization that is just about branding any locally owned business in our city and encouraging people to shop the local as opposed to a big-box national chain. Keep the money in the economy, create community, support each other. So that’s a beautiful thing. And we’ve then, kind of in tandem with that, are a Buy Fresh Buy Local chapter of a national organization called FoodRoutes, and there are Buy Fresh Buy Local chapters all across the country. And they have had some beautiful branding, and the people really enjoy…kind of hearkens back to old seed-packet look of supporting local food. And people around the country use it in very different ways. In our chapter, we have been using as primarily a farm-to-restaurant program, but also farm-to-health-care and farm-to-grocery-store. So a farm-to-business program that those businesses can then use to brand themselves as a restaurant that is committed to serving local food, or a grocery store or a hospital cafeteria. And it’s just so fun, because the chefs get so excited to work with the community, to be present and showcase their farm relationships, both in the restaurant, out at events, going out to do farm dinners. We have such an amazingly engaged chef community here.

TM: For our listeners who are just wondering now, where is this place we’re talking about, and you missed the beginning of it, we’re in beautiful Madison, Wisconsin, which actually is a very excellent city for locavores. There are so many delicious restaurants here who are very committed to buying local. And of course, probably one of the things, I think, backing that up—and once again, if you’re not from Madison, you’d better come and visit, and when you do, you should go to the Madison farmers’ market, which some like to say is one of the best markets in the country. It’s all located around the capitol, so it’s kind of fun to see all this beautiful local food surrounding the capitol. And isn’t it a very old farmers’ market?

MG: Yeah, the Dane County Farmers’ Market, it’s called, in Madison, and I won’t get this right, but they’ve been around well over thirty years.

TM: It’s one of the oldest, I think, farmers’ markets in the country.

MG: It is one of the oldest farmers markets in the country, and certainly one of the largest. I think there are over three hundred and some farmers who are members of the Dane County Farmers’ Market. And on any particular Saturday there will be well over 100 to 150 farmers set up around our Capitol Square. And the diversity of the food that is sold at the market is just amazing. I think the longevity of that market as one of the pioneering efforts in our community is really to be credited for the success that our local food movement has had in this region, and I think well beyond Madison. I want to say most of southern Wisconsin and even all of Wisconsin, because the distance that farmers come to vend at that market really is from all over the state. And they have invested in selling their product to this community, and this community has embraced them in such a meaningful way. I would say the other factor that has been instrumental in kind of the birthing and the success of our areas, our commitment to local food sourcing, is Willy Street Co-op, which is another very longstanding institution in our community who learned very early on to embrace our farming community was going to be a priority for them, or made that determination. So through that, organizations like REAP, who came along about twenty years ago; our CSA coalition, which is Fair Share CSA Coalition, which is really a model for the nation also on how to build a community who supports our farms through the model of CSA; our community gardens program and urban gardening programs, really all emerged, started to emerge about the same time and started to evolve together. And you know, we’re told, and I don’t doubt, that there’s some incredible sustainable local food movement work across the country. But our little piece of southern Wisconsin has been on the cutting edge of that, really, for about thirty years. And twelve years ago or so when I started working or volunteering with REAP, I think I went to my very first event as a volunteer, and a reporter came up to me—and I don’t know why me, because I didn’t know much of anything yet—and said, “So, what is this today? And why are we all here?” And I mumbled something just completely incoherent, but, “Yes, we want to support our farmers!” I don’t even know what I said. But she just looked at me with this, like, blank expression that clearly indicated like, “What? What are you even talking about? And why would we care about that?” And twelve years later, nobody asks that anymore. It’s all about how—like we get that this is important for every possible reason. It’s social justice, and it’s environment, and it’s economic development, and it’s health and nutrition—

TM: And it’s community.

MG: And it’s community. And our communities are changing. We’re becoming more urban—that’s just the reality—and we need to connect our urban and rural again. We just have to. We are becoming more diverse. We are not the all-look-the-same, stay-with-the-people-we-know-best communities we used to be. We have to embrace each other. We have to pull each other up, both from the farm side and from the consumer side. And that is the work of the local food movement now. It is so much about making this food readily available for everyone that is in our community.

TM: Hear, hear, Miriam! That was so well said, you know, making those connections between the value that we have for our families and our community, and then pushing that out into the food, into the people who make the food, and that we all know food is not just stuffing our mouths. It’s culture. Thank you, Miriam, for joining me today. And thanks to REAP Food Group for the amazing and deep work they are doing to educate about healthy, sustainable food in southern Wisconsin. Learn more about REAP at And you can find all Rootstock Radio episodes, plus more information about our guests, on our website at See you next week!

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