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From School Garden to Lunch Tray: Veggies Star in West Salem, Wisconsin

Posted by Kathleen FioRito, USDA Food and Nutrition Service Midwest Region in Food and Nutrition Initiatives
Feb 21, 2017
West Salem kindergarteners enjoy tacos, refried beans, Garden Bar, and grapes.
West Salem kindergarteners enjoy tacos, refried beans, Garden Bar, and grapes. (Photo courtesy of Sara Jeranek)

When it comes to local foods, it doesn’t get much fresher than vegetables direct from a school garden. In West Salem, Wisconsin, students are not only growing their own vegetables; they’re eating them – with enthusiasm -- in their school lunches. Even more, they’re having fun planting, digging, and harvesting, while learning sustainable growing practices.

On October 12, my colleague Samia Hamdan and I travelled to southwest Wisconsin to present West Salem Elementary School with the USDA’s highest award for school nutrition and health -- the HealthierUS School Challenge Gold of Distinction award. The event also served as a celebration for National School Lunch Week and National Farm to School Month, which promotes locally-sourced foods in the USDA school meals programs. So far this school year, their school lunch menu has featured many items from the school garden, including kale, peppers, potatoes, squash and raspberries. The “garden bar” offers fresh green salad, fresh veggies and fresh fruit every day utilizing produce from the school garden whenever it’s available. In addition to the school garden produce, vegetables from local sources are featured every month.

West Salem’s school nutrition director Michelle Kloser and garden manager Dave Langer make a dynamic team.  A school nutrition director for 12 years, six at West Salem, Michelle enjoys creating nutritious menus that meet school meals guidelines and also appeal to kids’ finicky taste buds. Dave loves gardening and teaching kids how to garden.  He’s a retired primary grade teacher who taught at West Salem Elementary School for 25 years. He’s also a long-time volunteer in the school’s garden. Now, thanks to a recent farm to school grant from the CDC to expand the garden, he’s delighted to get paid for doing what he loves.

Garden manager Dave Langer poses with West Salem students in the school’s garden which has become a source of pride for kids at the school.Garden manager Dave Langer poses with West Salem students in the school’s garden which has become a source of pride for kids at the school.
Garden manager Dave Langer poses with West Salem students in the school’s garden which has become a source of pride for kids at the school. (Photo courtesy of Sara Jeranek)

West Salem’s school garden is impressive in its size and variety. It has 12 raised beds, with different types of salad greens, swiss chard, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, eggplant, herbs and raspberries. The garden has been in place for about ten years, but now with funding from the CDC’s Communities Putting Prevention to Work initiative, David has been able to add more raised beds, a tool shed and various garden tools. His goal is to have all 730+ students at West Salem experience the garden hands-on during the school year.

But once they grow it, will they eat it? Michelle and Lynn Strong, kitchen manager, give a lot of thought to the challenge of serving school garden produce, especially unfamiliar vegetables, to the students. “We want a quality product so we experiment with new recipes before serving our garden veggies to the kids. Tasting cups are a great way of trying out something new.”  “Some of the favorites we have done are potato leek soup, summer squash vegetable medley and spinach salad with a raspberry or strawberry vinaigrette.”  They have been experimenting with recipes for babaganoush (a Middle-eastern eggplant dip) to use eggplant from the garden.

Students at West Salem think gardening is very cool. Dave’s after-school garden club has grown from 30 students to 100 in just one year. One student I talked to held up a banana pepper strip from her salad and said proudly, “We grew this.”

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Marla Heller, MS, RD
Nov 25, 2011

I love this story! Literally a "fresh" way to get kids to enjoy eating their veggies. And as we know from all the DASH diet research, this helps the kids develop a healthier future.

Marla Heller, MS, RD
Author of The DASH Diet Action Plan

Nov 27, 2011

After doing research on different programs are being developed in order to help children receive healthy meals, the way West Salem has been approaching the issue seems to be not only the most successful, but develops habits that will last a lifetime. One of the key elements that seem to make the children just as excited about healthy meals is getting them involved in gardening. Many children these days have a bad view on healthy food because of the messages they are getting from fast food companies and snack companies that promote sugary food and beverages. For a student to work in the garden and be able to sit in front of a plate of healthy food and say that they created that meal, which can be a very powerful change in a child’s mind. In West Salem, it proves that bringing the message of healthy eating in all different aspects of schooling is a critical part to making it this mission work. Educating children on the nutrition and creating new and different meals to serve at lunch keeps the mission fresh in the children’s minds.

West Salem is a great role model for other schools around the nation and I hope they continue their work.