There is little I love more than the holiday season. Truly. I’ve already had the Christmas station on my radio (and phone) for a solid two weeks and participated in two holiday baking events. I’ve only watched three Christmas movies, but only because my Carrot thought I was hitting it a little too hard and I best slow down.
But the one thing I love more than the holiday season (and my husband and my many pets and okay, probably another thing or two) is supporting local food businesses.
Yes, I am a vegetable farmer. A thriving young business owner myself. We began a CSA farm three years ago and were met with excitement, respect and open arms, and for that I am truly grateful every single day. I feel so blessed to live in a part of the country where being innovative and daring in the world of food is appreciated and supported.
I show my appreciation by buying pretty much every locally-made product I can get my hands on. Farmers, chocolatiers, bakers, jam makers, microbrewers. The list goes on and on. I love to support the super talented and creative food folks that thrive in my great state.
Now, thanks to REAP Food Group, I can combine my love of local products with my love of holiday gift giving. Honestly, I couldn’t be more excited about giving gifts that are products I use all the time and totally endorse while also supporting a local non-profit that helps connect area farmers to schools and restaurants.
This week, I interviewed Miriam Grunes (the executive director of REAP Food Group) about the work of her great organization, what’s up with the holiday gift boxes, her favorite holiday recipe and so much more! Read on to learn more about REAP and how to win one of their large holiday gift boxes filled with local products!
Tell my readers a little about the work you do at REAP.
REAP’s work is about growing local food connections throughout Southern Wisconsin. Our goal is to build and sustain a healthy local food system; one that supports small family farms and locally owned businesses, promotes sustainable agriculture practices, and provides access to good food, grown close to home, for the entire community.
We have the honor to work with hundreds of area farmers, chefs, school food service staff, teachers, students, hospital administrators, governmental agencies, fellow non-profits, and incredible volunteers. The work is diverse. We broker relationships, we teach children, we build awareness, we host community celebrations, and we chop about a 1000 pounds of vegetables a week for kids in our schools.
How long have you been with the organization?
I was hired as REAP’s first paid employee when I became Executive Director 12 years ago. Before that I volunteered and was on the Board of Directors back when the organization was an all volunteer organization.
How have you seen local food scene change over the years?
Fifteen years ago when I first got involved, this notion of a local sustainable “food system” was pretty foreign to most people. The connections between how food is grown, how it gets to our tables, and who benefits from those choices were just not strong in people’s consciousness. REAP’s work at that time was mostly to raise the issues. To encourage people to question where their food comes from and think about all the ramifications along the food chain — impacts of agriculture so reliant on chemical inputs on soil and water, concerns about fair labor issues and the health of farm workers, and the public health consequences of so much highly processed food in our diets. This all while huge food agribusinesses were making it harder and harder for small family farms to compete.
Fast forwarding to today it’s hard to believe just how far we’ve come. We’ve become a community that cares deeply about supporting our local farms. We want to know that our food is grown using practices that are good for the earth and good for the people who work in the fields. The popularity of Farm to Table restaurants is a shining example of how much has changed. There were only a couple of chefs in Madison making the effort to buy from local farmers when REAP was first started. Today the restaurant community purchases many millions of dollars worth of food from local farms each year, and the dining public can’t get enough.
Now REAP’s work is much more about “how” than “why.” How can we make it possible for food production to keep up with demand? How can local food be processed and distributed efficiently? How can farmers find the best markets for their products? How do we make sure the next generation of eaters has good food and a solid understanding of food issues? And how can we make sure that everyone in our community (not just the most affluent) has access to good food?
Do you have a favorite part of your job?
Probably, seeing the great progress we’re making with our Farm to School Program. School lunch has been the butt of jokes since I was in school. It’s no secret that our schools have typically served the absolute cheapest, highly processed, commodity products for decades. We began tackling that in the Madison schools over 12 years ago. It’s hard. Our schools are pinched for funding and have very little opportunity to make up the costs of better food. But we’re getting there. We’ve worked with the Madison School District over the last three years to build a salad bar program. Last year we helped install the 29th salad bar. The district is committed to figuring this out with us and it’s very encouraging.
Now tell me about these holiday gift baskets? How does this relate to your mission at REAP?
REAP has been coordinating a winter holiday sale for our area schools since 2005. It’l like the Girl Scout Cookie Sale but with great local and fair-trade items: maple syrup, dried Door County Cherries, goat milk soaps, apples, fresh veggies, local jam. All from local farms and businesses. The schools love this sale over the junky popcorn and wrapping paper sales so typical for school fundraisers. They make some money for their school programs, and the proceeds go back to Wisconsin farms and businesses during a time of year it’s not always easy for them to find markets: win-win!
We decided to add on a public version of the sale by creating gift boxes with many of the same items the schools have on their sale sheet. This side of the sale benefits REAP’s Farm to School program. They’re awesome products and a great way to give loved ones a Taste of Wisconsin and support a great cause!
Any other ways my readers can support your good work?
REAP is a member-based organization. It’s great to eat locally, but also important to support the catalysts of change. Give locally too!
Do you have a favorite place to eat in Madison?
Oh my goodness – there are so many amazing places to eat in this city. I’d could never pick just one place. If eating from a restaurant that commits to buying locally is important to you, please do check out the list of Partner Restaurants in our Buy Fresh Buy Local Program. These chefs have all made pledges to increase purchasing from local farms.
Again, how could I choose just one? OK… maybe sugar snap peas. The season is so short and when they’re fresh picked out of the garden, they’re like candy. As we head into the winter, it’s thinking about those first pea pickings next Spring that keeps me going.
Favorite holiday recipe?
Following my family tradition, I do like to indulge in Potato Latkes this time of year. We have fun making traditional and nontraditional… adding beet, sweet potatoes, or squash, and playing with various sauce options like wasabi or sriracha aoli, in addition to the traditional sour cream and apple sauce. Makes for an amazing burst of colors and flavors in an ultimate comfort food.
Thanks so much Miriam! Now check out the fantastic recipe I whipped up this week for a holiday party: popcorn tossed with cran & coco Yumbutter and local dried cherries then drizzled with dark chocolate and dusted with sea salt !
Lots of love,
**I used several tasty Wisconsin-based ingredients from the large savory REAP holiday gift box for today’s post! REAP also generously donated a large sweet REAP holiday gift box for me to give to one of you! Contents include Quince & Apple preserves, Potter’s graham crackers, Four Elements Tea, Gentle Breeze honey, Cherryland’s Best dark chocolate covered cherries, Cabibbos Bakery biscotti, Bauer Valley maple syrup and Lonesome Stone Milling pancake mix!
To be entered in my (first ever) giveaway (!!), share this post on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest and then leave a comment below telling me which sweet gift box product you are the most excited to use! The deadline to enter is 12:00 PM Central Time Monday, December, 7th.
The winner will be selected at random and the gift box will be delivered (or mailed, depending on your location) in the next two weeks!
Adapted from The Kitchn
Tis’ the season for holiday parties and DIY gifts. This popcorn is a great addition to any holiday spread, but it does double duty as a super easy gift! Make a batch a couple days before Christmas, fill gallon-sized Mason jars and tie on a ribbon. Ta da! Holiday gift giving in 1 hour or less!
Takes 30 minutes, plus time to chill
Makes 8 cups
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup popcorn kernels
1/2 cup Cherryland’s Best dried cherries, chopped loosely (or any dried fruit)
1/2 cup Gentle Breeze honey (or any honey)
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup Cran & Coca Yumbutter (or any peanut butter)
1 teaspoon sea salt (or Kosher salt), divided
1/2 cup dark chocolate chips
In a large stock pot, warm oil over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add popcorn kernels. Stir so they are coated with oil. Stir occasionally until the first kernel pops, then cover with a lid and reduce heat to medium low. As the popcorn starts popping vigorously (after about a minute or two), shake the pot occasionally to make sure unpopped kernels are distributed evenly. Once, the popping slows to a couple seconds between pops, remove from heat, but keep on the lid for a few more minutes.
Remove popped popcorn to baking sheet, making sure to go slowly so that you can toss out any unpopped kernels that you find. Once all unpopped kernels are removed from the pot, pour the popped popcorn back in. Add chopped dried cherries.
Begin preparing the sauce. Combine honey and sugar in a medium saucepan. Heat over medium heat until boiling, about 5 minutes. Reduce to low and simmer for 2 minutes. Turn off heat, but keep pan on burner while you stir in vanilla extract, peanut butter and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt. Stir vigorously until peanut butter mixture is smooth and uniform with no lumps. Pour warm mixture over popcorn, stirring as you go with a silicon spatula so popcorn is coated evenly.
While still warm, pour popcorn out onto a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. (You can absolutely stop here. This popcorn is absolutely delicious. Wait about 10 minutes for it to cool and then break it into pieces and enjoy or gift!)
In a double boiler (don’t have a double boiler, just put a 1/2 inch of water in a small saucepan and place a small bowl on top) bring water to a boil. Add chocolate chips to top bowl and stir until melted and smooth. Drizzle over popcorn and sprinkle with remaining 1/2 teaspoon sea salt. Let set for about an hour in the fridge and then break into pieces!