The Lasting Impact of "Greenhouse to Kitchen"
This week on Rootstock Radio, we speak with Sarah Tedeschi and her daughter Rose Bruce. Both Sara and Rose are pursuing paths in food, nutrition and agriculture—Sara in her career and current work as the National Farm to School Network’s Wisconsin program manager, and Rose in her studies as a sustainable agriculture major at Warren Wilson College. Together, this mother-daughter duo is involved in the gardening and cooking program at Lake Valley Camp, a camp that teaches Milwaukee-area youth life and leadership skills in a value-based community.
Speaking of her background in nutrition, Sara affirms that “indeed that is where the light bulb went off: that if I’m interested in nutrition, I better get interested in agriculture.” And this interest in agriculture has led Sara to myriad projects from pioneering organic CSAs in the Driftless Region of Wisconsin, to championing farm to school programs, to creating the gardening and cooking curriculum for Lake Valley Camp.
Rose acknowledges that “not everybody grows up handling their food from seed to plate,” and she lists her first-hand experience with food “from the greenhouse to the kitchen” as incredibly meaningful and formative. Rose is committed to passing this meaningful connection with food on to Lake Valley campers and leadership trainees in her role as coordinator and mentor of the gardening and cooking program. “I watch [campers] care more about what they are eating, and that really makes me feel fulfilled,” says Rose.
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: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and today I am so delighted to be with my friends Sara Tedeschi and her daughter, Rose Bruce. Sara has a background in nutrition and agriculture, and is currently serving as the Wisconsin program manager for the National Farm to School Network, a really important and exciting program. Rose shares her mother’s passion for food and agriculture and is pursuing a major in sustainable agriculture at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. Together, Rose and Sara are doing a summer program at Lake Valley Camp in Wisconsin, teaching Milwaukee-area youth leadership skills, garden skills, and cooking skills. Welcome, Sara and Rose.
SARA TEDESCHI: Thank you. So nice to be here, Theresa.
ROSE BRUCE: Thanks, Theresa.
TM: You know, I met Sara many, many years ago, maybe two decades ago, wasn’t it, Sara? And in fact, we worked together for a while. And Sara, I so remember and I was so jealous and envious of you when you told me that you went to Bastyr in Seattle, Washington. And that is a very, very excellent nutrition school. That was a while ago, but why did you decide to go to Bastyr? What drove you to this love of wanting to know more about nutrition and food?
ST: Well, it’s wonderful that you know Bastyr University, Theresa. That says a lot about you, because a lot of people get a blank stare when I say where I got my nutrition undergraduate degree. It was the perfect move for me at that time of my life, having had a couple years of undergrad under my belt doing totally things. But I’d always been immersed in nutrition. Way back in high school I began to goof around with my diet and do all kinds of things, strict macrobiotics, and I was exploring and reading and just experimenting on myself constantly, and learning a lot—
TM: Experimenting on yourself!
ST: I did! I still do that, actually. But I got to the point where I really wanted to pursue it, and I got serious about the science, and I knew that I needed that if I was going to sort of quench this desire and this interest to know more and to make it really part of my life. So anyway, yeah, Bastyr opened a lot of doors for me in terms of my interest in nutrition. And indeed, that is where the lightbulb went off: that if I’m interested in nutrition, I’d better get interested in agriculture. And I did just that.
TM: But you’re from here, and so you moved back here, got married, had a couple kids. I actually know that you’re probably as close to a master gardener as anyone I know. When I probably have a question or something’s not right, I can ask you and you know something about it. So you became like a farmer-gardener as well, didn’t you?
ST: Mm-hmm. We did. Rose’s father and myself, David and I, we moved back to my family farm here in Wisconsin. We’re south of Viroqua—I’m still living on the same farm. And indeed, we began a CSA. But I’ll tell you, the learning curve was steep, and we learned hand-over-fist, and partnered also with his brother. And while all of our children were young—and indeed, that was part of the decision to farm, is we wanted to be home with our kids, we wanted our kids to be around us while we worked at what was important to us. And that turned out to be absolutely the right choice for us. It’s still the favorite job that I’ve ever had, is farming; I would do it again if I had the cadre of people around me now to make that possible. But it was a fantastic foray into agriculture and into the outreach, education and outreach with our membership that also really led me down the path as an educator as well. It was very informative.
TM: It’s so interesting, in the 1980s this whole CSA, farmer market movement was just in its infancy—I mean, even before its infancy. And so I’m going to say that you were a pioneer in this. Were there other CSAs there? Did you have a lot of competition? I don’t even remember that being that many CSAs of that…
ST: No, we were definitely on the early edge of that curve. I think we were literally one of the first three to five CSA farms in the whole state of Wisconsin.
ST: We pretty quickly found some camaraderie with farmers also getting into it through the Madison Area CSA Coalition, and I got very involved in their board and working with them. And we wrote The A to Z Cookbook together and things like that. But you’re right, it was not the established movement with the known best practices and a lot of now research behind what makes a successful CSA farm. We were figuring those things out—
TM: And you were also certified organic, I’m assuming.
ST: Oh yeah, absolutely.
TM: Or, if not certified, you were trying to do organic, no pesticides…
ST: We were certified. That was very important to us—and a really big part of our learning curve as well, because when you choose to certify, you also choose to become very educated about the agriculture that you’re undertaking. And so for us, I mean, that’s made a world of difference for me. I also ended up working in organic certification for many years, sort of in tandem with being a CSA farmer. That was very helpful to me, to learn, and has stood me in good stead.
TM: Rose, what was it like, growing up on the farm like that and seeing your parents working probably eighteen hours a day?
RB: Well, I… Definitely most of my first memories are on the farm with them, and of harvesting, and sort of helping out with the CSA but really just hanging out with a very multigenerational community on the farm and in Madison, where we gave our shares. But I, looking back on it, I think I really took it for granted, honestly, because it was all I knew at the time. And as I ventured out further into the world when I got older, I realized that not everybody grows up handling their food from seed to plate and knowing exactly where it came from. And I’m very lucky to have parents that are also great cooks, so I really watched that happen, from the greenhouse to the kitchen. And that was really meaningful to me.
TM: You know, I don’t think there are a lot of kids that have probably had that. But you know, they say that those kids who have been working on the farm in that—and I loved the way you just said it, the greenhouse to the kitchen—have a very different work ethic than others. What do you think? Do you think that’s happened to you? What’s your work ethic like? Can I put you on the spot?
RB: Well, I work in several gardens now. At home a little bit, and then in my summer job at Lake Valley Camp, I work in the garden there. And then I go to school at Warren Wilson where I also work a garden. And I definitely, looking back on watching my parents farm, I know that it’s not your regular nine-to-five, and there may be a call from the neighbors in the middle of the night saying the cows are out, or whatever it may be. It’s a full-time job, and they worked so hard that that has definitely helped form my work ethic.
TM: I want to go back and talk about the Lake Valley Camp that you just mentioned, because I know that you’ve been working on that all summer, and that also, Sara, you started this camp. So I’d love for you all to tell us a little bit about the Lake Valley Camp. It sounds like a really fantastic model for working with kids and for expressing a lot of activism around food and farming.
RB: Well, just to give a little bit of background: Lake Valley Camp is a nonprofit that works primarily with youth from Milwaukee, from underserved communities in Milwaukee. And these youth come out to a piece of land in Boscobel, Wisconsin, and are offered a variety of positive rural experiences and leadership training. So these are kids that spend time at the camp from usually age seven or eight until they are seventeen or eighteen, because they have a retention rate there. So it’s really quite a family and a community.
And the program that my mother started is the garden program there, which is one of the many programs that is offered. But it’s unique in that the teenagers at the camp, who are leadership trainees, they are working in the garden with, it used to be with my mother, now with me, just developing this curriculum and cultivating the garden where then we teach classes to the younger kids—in the morning, garden-based classes, and then in the afternoon pretty extensive cooking classes. So these kids come out from Milwaukee, and they come out basically knowing nothing about the garden—they may have had a few classes in previous years at the camp, but pretty much no agricultural experience. And it’s really meaningful to me to help them, just kind of facilitate them taking the reins on these classes and teaching these kids about nutrition and where their food comes from and how to grow and prepare it themselves.
And helping these kids make these connections that basically everything they’ve ever consumed was once growing out of the ground, and watch them get their hands dirty and plant these seeds that will grow up, and then be sent to this dining hall at the camp where they will consume it, is really meaningful. And I watch them care more about what they are eating. And that really makes me feel fulfilled.
TM: Well, you know, I think every parent out there who’s listening to that, going, “I wonder if they’re able to get kids to eat vegetables like broccoli?” And have you seen, working with the kids, that they actually do change their diets, do you think?
RB: Absolutely! I think so. Every morning we have the kids harvest something from the garden that they later eat as snack. And these are kids that have signed up for the garden program. But occasionally we actually do a massive harvest out of the garden, we take it up to the whole camp community in these big bowls of all these raw vegetables, and just hand them out. And I’m a vegetable lover, but even I don’t eat raw broccoli or raw zucchini plain with nothing on it. And these kids are just voracious—they can’t get enough of it.
It’s quite amazing to see them in the garden, harvesting it, and suddenly they care about it because they feel like it’s a part of them. I’ve heard kids say, like, “This garden is a part of me,” and “This is my garden.” And it just helps them take ownership of their diet, because they’ve seen it growing in the ground. And some of these kids have come out weeks before and helped plant it, and then they come out a month later and they see how tall it’s grown. And it just helps connect the dots.
And then when they’re in the dining hall and they have the option to go to the salad bar, and they see the things that we have grown for them, they eat it because it’s meaningful for them. And they say, “Wow, this tastes so much better than any vegetables I’ve had before, and I just want all the greens I can get.” And they just, they can’t get enough of it. It’s amazing.
TM: That must be so satisfying. And Sara, you started this program.
ST: I did. I was missing being part of this community, and I love these kids so much, I can’t tell you. Lasting relationships, so even the teens that I worked with back when I started the program, I’m in touch with them—we see each other, we spend time together, they reach out to me, I write them job recommendations. It’s a real relationship. And what I saw happen with those teens in literally one intensive month that they would spend with myself or now with Rose in the garden, just transformative. Just transformative. And they can articulate that themselves. And that is in some ways the most amazing transformation, that they are open enough and aware enough of themselves and their own goals that they see their growth during that time.
I can’t imagine a more fun day than spending a hot, sweaty day in the garden with these teens and these kids. And it’s exhausting—I mean, I must say, I’m glad to have passed the torch to Rose to some degree. She comes home exhausted. And then it’s a wonderful thing that we share, because I know the kids, and they adore her. Just seeing the magic that happens with a younger person mentoring these teens—they’re only several years apart—has even taken it to a new level.
TM: When you first started this, Sara, I remember talking with you, and you were saying, “Wow, it is so interesting to try and teach teenagers how to use a knife.” And so I think that was an example to me of “How to use a knife? Of course—when did I learn how to use a knife? I can’t remember.” But I guess there’s just a whole lot of those skills that we take for granted, probably, that you found that you’re probably not just teaching these kids, but then maybe these kids are going to be teaching other kids.
ST: Yeah, I mean, picture this: We’re not only teaching the teenagers knife skills and a whole lot of other culinary skills—food safety and the works. We’re teaching them in order for them to be what we call the lead chef or the head chef for a two-hour cooking class, where they may be responsible for teaching knife skills to literally eighteen, let’s say nine-year-old boys or girls. You know, we’re not trying to hold kids back. We’re trying to teach them real skills. We’re trying to teach them to feel empowered and to feel capable and competent, because that’s when you start to love the things you care about, is when you get good at it. And so because these kids do come back year after year to Lake Valley Camp, these kids over the years are really building a skill set.
And I’m excited to think, you know, even now it’s happening, and even down the line, that these teens who are up in front of a class of kids, maintaining every step of preparation—teaching preparation of a whole menu that then they of course sit down and eat and socialize over—the skills that that requires and the presentation skills and the leadership skills that that requires are just fantastic. And to watch them do it, and for them to recognize their accomplishment, again, is a big, big part of the program.
TM: That must be terrific confidence-building as well as just learning skills, to say, “Wow, I can do this.” And I think that might be very, probably just as valuable in some ways. How many children are you able to accommodate in these programs here?
ST: Well, the camp has four sessions per summer. There’s about approximately a hundred kids between age nine through fourteen that are considered the campers. And then the fifteen- through seventeen-year-olds are these leadership trainees, and they work every function of the camp. So some of the younger leadership trainees are gleaning and doing other, you know, doing the dishes. They are helping to run the camp that they have come up through since they were seven and eight years old. So it belongs to them, you know, they care about this place.
So there’s, at any given time, there are a different number of leadership trainees. They have to self-select to enter that program, and then they indeed graduate from the program. And then they are eligible to apply to become staff in training and then full staff. And so one of the greatest rewards of working at Lake Valley Camp, because it is truly the mission in action, is working shoulder-to-shoulder with young people who have come up through that program, who may have ten or twelve years under their belt at that program and are now full staff and are giving back fully to the young kids that they once were.
TM: If you’ve just tuned in, this is Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Sara Tedeschi and her daughter, Rose Bruce.
Well, it’s very, very rewarding to hear about this full-spectrum, multifaceted learning experience that also sounds like it’s fun, challenging, et cetera, lots of growth. And you know, you talked about it growing out of the school gardens movement. And now you’re working with the National Farm to School Network, aren’t you, in Wisconsin? And you’ve been doing that—actually, didn’t it overlap with your work with the Lake Valley Camp?
ST: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I’ve really, truthfully been working in Farm to School since the early 2000s, first through the University of Wisconsin in Madison and the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems there, which is a long name basically for what is UW-Madison’s sustainable ag center on campus. You know, it’s relevant having Rose here, because she was a small child when I got into the Farm to School work, as was her brother, and it is literally my first experiences in their cafeterias in Madison, Wisconsin, in public school, that I didn’t know—it was an accidental career that happened for me. I happened to have a background in nutrition and agricultural, so that was a good fit. But really, everyone listening, it’s being a parent, it’s being a mother or a father that makes you put that next step in front of the other and keep moving forward, because something had to be done.
TM: It was those chicken tenders and tater tots got to you, didn’t they?
ST: Yeah, it did, and they’re still getting to me because they haven’t gone away yet completely, but we’re working on it. And it led me into Farm to School work, which was a natural fit for me. And over the years, yes, the school gardening movement that didn’t really exist then, in some ways, is overtaking Farm to School in terms of it makes sense to so many people, and it’s in some ways an obvious and doable, an extension of all of our interest in experiential education, making the nutrition that we have to deliver to children, making that experiential for all our reasons—you know, Rose talked about and we talked about in terms of what the Camp kids are getting. This is what schools can do on a daily basis and are beginning to.
We weren’t using the words “Farm to School,” and we weren’t even really saying “school” and “garden” in the same sentence, really. I mean, there may have been some that existed because people have always known that gardens are a good thing and kids benefit on some level. But no, it wasn’t… I mean, it literally, it’s now to the point where the USDA, not only do we have a USDA Farm to School program, but the CDC has identified and is funding Farm to School and school gardens as a community nutrition intervention. I mean, it’s considered a community strategy.
ST: Yeah. These are huge and very influential federal departments that also wield enormous policy and do control our national school lunch programs but also many, many other federal programs that serve communities around the country and serve children. So it’s very important that there is that kind of credibility. And of course, the funding is needed as well.
TM: I’m curious—I’ve talked to people from around the country about trying to get more local farm food to schools, and I hear a lot of, there’s a lot of tenacity that goes into trying to get that done, just because the kind of farms that we’d probably like to be feeding the schools aren’t necessarily huge farms and they don’t necessarily have distribution. What have you seen as you’ve tried to work with getting these local, probably smaller farmers into school cafeterias?
ST: Yeah, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of growth also, over the years that I’ve been involved in Farm to School, in terms of our ability and schools’ ability and interest in bringing in local healthful foods into the meal programs and snack programs and educational activities. But you are right, Theresa, you’re inferring here that it is, in many ways, yet the most encumbered and there are still many barriers that schools face. And there are many challenges that the producers face in serving schools as a market.
You know, that is part of the import of working as closely now as we do with our USDA Farm to School program, because they have been very influential in helping decipher the federal regulations around school meals and the ways in which schools are required to procure any food, whether it’s local or fresh or not fresh. It’s extremely complicated. And we entered the farm-to-school era with more misconceptions and perceived barriers than there even were. We’ve taken care of a lot of those, but now we’re sort of down to the nitty-gritty of the barriers that really exist. But the USDA has been an important, very, very important partner in that.
TM: Well, and I think the barriers, like you said, are very complex on both sides. There’s, it seems to me, school policy and school safety and all these other things, and then there’s the whole farmer side and the distribution and so on. Do you see that there’s a possibility that we might be changing some of our policies, or maybe lifting up some of the federal involvement in it and having it be more local? Is there any models out there that you know of that you’re seeing that could be helpful?
ST: I’d like to say that’s the case, and I want that to be in our future. But unfortunately, the way we feed children in this country is totally politically embroiled in policy, that we could spend another many hours talking about. But we do need change. We need a lot of change, we need a lot of advocacy. The National Farm to School Network, one of the primary functions is policy advocacy on those very issues, and we partner with other groups who are engaged with child nutrition in this country. So that’s very, very important. But we have to understand, this is the most highly regulated meal in the world, that we set down in front of kids every day in this country—
TM: [I hadn’t] thought about that, but you’re probably right.
ST: It costs the least—we don’t want to pay much for it—but we want to have a whole lot of guidelines. And of course, many of those guidelines are super important—we have the nutritional guidelines that we’re always trying to improve. But again, the procurement regulations for schools, the documentation that is required to maintain eligibility with the National School Lunch Program, which is a requirement if you’re going to have the federal reimbursement, if you’re going to have funding to feed kids. So it’s a challenging place to make improvement. But nobody is giving up.
And I will say that wonderful things are happening around the country where local producers, you know, we’re seeing more local product coming through major distributors, whether that’s produce distributors or broadline distributors. They’re seeing the writing on the wall: people want local, institutions want local healthy foods. They are delivering more than not. And then of course, that direct relationship with producers when they can make that right fit, when they can align with the right producer relationship and vice versa, or let’s say a producer group, a cooperative, or a food hub, et cetera. When that fit is in place, we see just wonderful things happening, and of course children benefiting and nutrition programs benefiting.
TM: You know, Sara, can you give parents any advice on if there’s any way they can get involved in their school lunch programs of their children?
ST: Yeah, I think there are many ways. Even before I was doing this work, I was intruding in Rose’s classes particularly, and her brother Dylan, but I think particularly Rose from the day one.
TM: “Oh no, here comes my mother!”
ST: Yeah, and doing food things with little kids. The story is that yes, engaging our kids around food early and always, and making it our own. It has to be genuine. You know, what is the food culture of your home and what is your connection to food? And do you have a connection to food growing, even if it’s not your own garden, to community gardens or urban agriculture or local farms? What is it? How are you going to find that connection for yourself and share it with your kids?
TM: Well, I just want to say congratulations, Mom, because you did a great job. And also thank you both so much. I’m talking to Sara Tedeschi and Rose Bruce, and I want to thank you both for such a lively conversation and an inspiration to all of us who, you know, don’t think that simple things can make a big difference. And just getting involved in your food and the Lake Valley Camp—what an inspirational story that is for us. So thank you so much. It’s just so great to be talking with you.
RB: Thank you, Theresa.
ST: Great to talk with you always. Thank you, Theresa.