Madison Celebrates Local and Sustainable Food on the Square

There isn’t much more I would rather do on a crisp, fall day in Madison than visit the Downtown Farmer’s Market. With a sea of proud Madisonites dressed in badger gear foraging for the week’s local food offerings, chocolate-faced kids enjoying their morning treats, and the sun shining strong, I couldn’t help but spend hours meandering the market last week. However, I had more on my “to-do” list than shop for my fill of seasonal veg on that Saturday. It was REAP’s annual Food for Thought Festival on the Square, one of the best fall food events for passionate locavores, if you ask me.  

The festival, described on their site as “a fun, festive forum that explores and celebrates our many opportunities to eat more pleasurably, healthfully and sustainably,” has featured multiple famous food-industry favorites since its start in 1999; Michael Pollan, Dan Barber, Mollie Katzen, Alice Waters, and Deborah Madison are just a few of the keynote speakers and chefs who have participated during previous years. This year’s keynote speaker was equally as impressive. I weaved my way to an open seat under the big white tent on Saturday morning to hear Ann Cooper, also known as “The Renegade Lunch Lady,” speak about the many horrors of school lunch in today’s educational system. 

Chef Ann CooperChef Ann CooperChef Cooper is trying to reinvent the way American lunchrooms are operated, shifting from plastic wrapped chicken nuggets and frozen tator tots to homemade roast chicken, mashed potatoes, and a fresh salad bar. With programs in Berkley, California and Boulder, Colorado, Chef Cooper has done just that, showing that school lunch can undergo this transformation and that kids thoroughly enjoy eating the freshly prepared food. “With just $1 per day,” states Cooper, “fresh and healthy ingredients can be brought into schools around the country.” One of the most effective ideas, in my opinion, was when Cooper challenged the audience to “see cafeterias as classrooms,” teaching children how to eat healthful and balanced meals. A good place to start, she said, is right down the block at the farmer’s market, which she referred to as “one of the most amazing farmer’s markets in the country.” I can’t say that I disagree.

This year’s festival also featured booths from some of Madison’s best sustainable food resources, such as Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition (MACSAC), Dane County Food Council, Friends of Dane County Farmers’ Market, Local Dirt, and Slow Food Madison. There were plenty of books to browse, delicious local food samples to savor, and knowledgeable foodies with which to talk. 

Kids even got a chance to enjoy the festival by making edible vegetable necklaces, feeding two lively (and quite friendly, may I add) backyard chickens, taking part in the costume contest and canning lesson, and by choosing from a variety of vegetables and fruits to have painted on their face. Who says kids don’t get excited about carrots, potatoes, and celery? There wasn’t a frown to be seen!

If you would like to support the transformation of school lunch in America, head on over to Ann Cooper’s website, to read more.


Katy Radtke is a recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Growing up in a foodie family spurred her love for cooking (and eating!) tasty food, while her time in Madison has prompted her deep passion for the sustainable and local food movement. When Katy isn’t baking up one of her famous pies, she enjoys doing yoga, perusing one of Madison’s many farmer’s markets, drinking tea at the coffee shop around the corner, and traveling. You can see more of Katy’s work on her blog, A Blissful Bite.