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Fueling stomachs, students and communities with Madison schools

A group of elementary school children smile for the camera while eating lunch
Students at Nuestro Mundo Community School try new menu options for the lunch program’s revitalization.

Story by Maddie Kranz x’24, a UW–Madison student studying Community & Nonprofit Community  and Art History.

A white woman smiling, with brown, straight hair, wearing a white shirt and gold necklace.
Jennifer Gaddis, associate professor of Civil Society & Community Studies and Jane Rafferty Thiele Faculty Fellow of Graduate Teaching

Jennifer Gaddis, associate professor of Civil Society & Community Studies and Jane Rafferty Thiele Faculty Fellow of Graduate Teaching, has spent more than a decade researching school lunch programs. Through a partnership with the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD)’s Research, Assessment & Improvement department, Gaddis is connecting the importance of lunch for students to community-based research by working with Human Ecology students to create better lunch options. Her graduate-level class, CSCS 801: Community Innovations in Civil Society, took part in this research by collecting data and developing programs during the fall 2023 semester.

“We’ve been hearing that a lot of kids end up going hungry and not eating, even if they qualify for free school lunches,” said Carla Rattunde, a Civil Society & Community Research doctoral student in Gaddis’ class.

Nearly all MMSD students listed at least one school lunch meal that they enjoyed, but the children explained that they have issues with the texture of the food. Many of the textural issues are related to shipping the meals in individual packages to the schools from a central kitchen, which means they have to be reheated. However, with more funding from participation in the school lunch program, these infrastructural challenges can be corrected.

A white person with a big smile and short, dark blonde hair, wearing a light shirt and a navy blazer.
Carla Rattunde, Civil Society & Community Research doctoral student

The school lunch program also plays a role in systemic nutrition issues that are prevalent throughout Wisconsin and the country. Approximately 12 million children live in poverty in the United States, and the majority of these children are Black, Hispanic or Indigenous American. Wisconsin alone has nearly 200,000 children living in poverty — quadruple the student population of UW–Madison. Food insecurity is far more common in low-income households, and K-12 schools are sometimes the only places that children can be guaranteed a nutritious meal. Gaddis argues in her The New York Times op-ed that if more students who can afford school lunch take part in the program, the food quality and nutrition levels will improve for all of the students in that school, and community support for subsidizing school lunches will increase.

“To be healthy, you have to have all the nutrients that you need, and a lot of kids — especially Black and brown kids — don’t get this nutrition,” Rattunde said. “It affects their education, which determines what jobs you can get. That affects how much money you have, which is related to how healthy you can be.”

Focused on her immediate community of Madison, Gaddis knows that without proper nutrition, MMSD’s children may be missing out on reaching their full potential. Putting data into practice, Gaddis and Human Ecology students have set out to improve the quality of the school district’s lunch programs to ensure nutritious meals for all students.

Practicing empathy-centered design

The partnership between the School of Human Ecology and MMSD builds on a collaboration that Amy Washbush, associate director of the Center for Community & Nonprofit Studies (now called Community & Organizational Development), and Gaddis started back in November 2020 to work with local high schools. The graduate student researchers utilized Gaddis’ previous connection to form a project team with Josh Perkins, MMSD’s Director of Food and Nutrition; Leigh Vierstra, MMSD’s Director of Innovation; Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI), the local teachers’ union; and REAP Food Group. Before the graduate students could help innovate a design to test, they first had to explore the needs of the school district’s students and their caregivers.

A group of individuals stand in front of whiteboards covered in writing and multicolored Post-It notes
CSCS 801 graduate students and Gaddis partnered with MMSD and community partners to brainstorm program improvements

“Here in Human Ecology, we often talk about design thinking,” Gaddis said. “You start with empathizing with a person and their experience and then brainstorm ideas for how the problems can be addressed. You also create prototypes for solutions, think through initial tests, and create evaluations for those initial tests before scaling out that solution.”

MMSD uses a specialized type of design thinking called liberatory design, which is common in K-12 education planning. Liberatory design adds frameworks for reflection and continuous improvement of a program.

The graduate student researchers and the project team learned from their community partners — REAP Food Group and MTI — and the MMSD students about existing concerns regarding school lunches. REAP Food Group, a Dane County nonprofit dedicated to food education and building sustainable food systems, highlighted the need to include culturally-relevant meals. When school lunches include types of food that students eat at home, they may be more likely to choose them instead of packing their own. MTI’s Education Justice Coalition recently launched a campaign encouraging MMSD families to take part in the school lunch program, because higher participation rates will help make it better for all students.

During their onsite research, the graduate students observed whether the MMSD students who bought a school lunch sat with other children who got school lunches or with children who packed a lunch, what they ate for lunch, and how long it took them to eat. Later in the project, the graduate students organized focus groups with the children, asking them about their opinions on the current school lunch program and what they enjoy about lunch. The project team also organized focus groups with the MMSD students’ caregivers to learn what they wanted from the school lunch program. By engaging with the elementary school students directly, the Human Ecology graduate students witnessed firsthand how lunch options impact the MMSD students’ physical and social well-being.

A group of individuals sit on a bench and pose for a picture
Gaddis (right) and Perkins (second from right) with cafeteria staff and Nuestro Mundo Principal Joshua Forehand (middle)

After compiling the data, the graduate students reported back to the rest of the project team to find commonalities between what MMSD students and their caregivers wanted in a school lunch program, what they needed, and what they felt was not working well. The team brainstormed feasible solutions that could make a larger impact than just changing the lunch menus.

“The main goal is to increase the amount of kids who can eat lunch,” Rattunde said. “We want to change the school lunch environment so that people want to be signing up for it, and we want to improve communication so families know how to plan their schedule around the program.”

At the end of the fall 2023 semester, the project team designed a test program that will integrate more fresh, in-school cooking and additional vegetarian options to the school lunch menus to accommodate families’ choices.

Putting the pieces together

Building off the graduate students’ program design, undergraduate students are continuing the partnership’s research through CSCS 375: Human Ecology of Food & Sustainability. The elementary students are sampling some of the new menu options — informed by graduate students’ focus group data — to provide the undergraduates with feedback. The pilot program is underway at Nuestro Mundo Community School, a Spanish-English dual-language immersion school. With the school’s in-house kitchen, the new menu items can be crafted on-site, making it easier to test the project team’s theory that culturally-relevant and vegetarian options would increase participation.

A buffet-style serving station with chicken, tofu, broccoli, and rice
Some of the new menu items that the MMSD students are trying include seasoned chicken, honey ginger tofu, roasted broccoli, and cilantro lime rice
A woman with medium-length brown hair sits on a set of stairs. She is wearing a red sweater.
Sofia More, Community & Organizational Development x’26

“We each go to Nuestro Mundo once or twice throughout the semester,” said Sofia More, a sophomore in the class studying Community & Nonprofit Leadership (now called Community & Organizational Development). “We give the students a little cup with a food sample and a bingo chip, and they get to put their chip in a bucket that either says ‘I liked it’, ‘I loved it’, or ‘I tried it.’”

The Human Ecology of Food & Sustainability class will use the voting totals to inform which new lunch menu items to implement. In the coming months, the undergraduate student researchers will conduct another round of focus groups with fourth- and fifth-grade students and their caregivers to gather information about their feelings toward the pilot program.

Three undergraduate students hold voting stickers and a lunch tray
More (left) and her Human Ecology of Food & Sustainability peers collect votes from MMSD students

The data that Human Ecology graduate and undergraduate students have collected serves a greater purpose than just redesigning the menu for elementary students’ enjoyment. By encouraging children and families to eat more hot lunches in their elementary schools, the nutritional impact of the program redesign will affect children for the rest of their lives.

“They’ve already seen significant increases in participation [in the school lunch program] among the students,” Gaddis said. “Not only can we start to build a different culture around school meals at Nuestro Mundo, but we are also able to take this data to the school board. Josh Perkins and I presented to the school board last semester, and we’re going to be presenting on this pilot program data later this [spring 2024] semester, as well.”

The Human Ecology-community connection

The work of Human Ecology students, faculty and alumni is centered around the practice of design thinking, which the graduate student researchers used to develop the pilot program with their community partners. However, design thinking is more than just a process.

“Design thinking pushes us to be human centered, think about empathy, and think about who is closest to the issue so we can gather their perspectives and amplify their voices,” Gaddis said.

“Our focus on capturing the student voice to communicate it to decision-makers — that feels very aligned with the empathy and social justice values that remind me of Human Ecology.”

Human Ecology courses and partnered research projects combine design thinking and community-based research to provide students with unique opportunities to have a tangible impact on the well-being of the broader community. For Rattunde, who worked for Public Health Madison & Dane County before enrolling as a doctoral student, the chance to work with local partners is unlike anything they had experienced before.

“We’re doing real, applied projects that are important, which is why I came here,” Rattunde said. “I didn’t have connections to what people outside of the health department were thinking about, so it’s been nice to get to know the different [MMSD] schools better.”

A woman with short brown hair smiles in front of a window
Astrid Hooper Lofton, Human Development & Family Studies x’24

Other students like Astrid Hooper Lofton — a senior in Gaddis’ undergraduate course who studies Human Development & Family Studies — value these chances to apply classroom knowledge, because they help inform passions and career interests.

“I’ve had a hard time figuring out how my interests in research and working directly with people align,” Hooper Lofton said. “Getting to see an example of how you can take something you are interested in, go into the community, and work with different people to figure out how to make that happen is really cool.”

A sign in a lunchroom that reads, "Gracias Ana Paula y Agustina por la cominda". In English, this translates to, "Thank you Ana Paula and Agustina for the food".
MMSD students decorated their cafeteria in preparation for testing the new menu items. In English, the sign reads, “Thank you Ana Paula [and Agustina] for the food”
Hooper Lofton also emphasized the importance of having expert faculty who teach Human Ecology courses.

“Dr. Gaddis has written a book on the topic of school lunch and is working on a new one,” Hooper Lofton said. “She’s really knowledgeable, and I find it interesting to get to work with a professor who’s so specialized. It makes it engaging to learn about something so specific.”

Gaddis, too, has found her courses’ work to be rewarding. Later this semester, she will be presenting the culmination of this research at the Wisconsin Idea Conference with the project’s community partners. The theme of the conference? Community University Partnerships for Stronger Communities.

Through the generosity of donors Jane ’72 and Patrick Thiele ’72, faculty at the UW–Madison School of Human Ecology can confront problems facing communities and families, and change the trajectory for a lifetime of flourishing.

Associate Professor Jennifer Gaddis is the inaugural recipient of the Jane Rafferty Thiele Faculty Fellowship, supporting real-world partnerships with communities, graduate and undergraduate students.

Support for the school’s greatest priorities ensures top flight faculty are able to provide an exceptional student experience where the community is our classroom.