STEVENS POINT – Food brings comfort, can be a window into different cultures, and can remind us of home.
However, school lunches are a different story, especially for students of color.
“Coming into school, it’s a whole different plate,” said Choua Wang, an 18-year-old senior at Stevens Point High School. “Sometimes you have pizza or breakfast for lunch.”
For diverse students like Wang, this year’s pilot program at SPASH through a local agricultural non-profit organization has helped make parenting and home cooking a part of life in a public high school.
“It makes me feel at home,” Wang said. “Getting Hmong food in schools is important because it’s an important part of Stevens Point culture.”
Several dozen students and members of the SPASH community gathered Tuesday at Central Rivers Farmshed on Briggs Street to celebrate the end of the school year when the non-profit organization unveiled a culturally specific nutrition program that was first aimed at the local Hmong population.
Ann Wang, who runs the Sib Pab for Central Rivers Farmshed, said the program has evolved over the course of the school year.
Sib Pab is committed to providing multicultural high school meals using local produce grown on local farms. The program prioritizes feeding black, indigenous, and other students of color so that their school life reflects their home life.
“I heard from students that they can be themselves,” said Ann Wang. “Students should not be ashamed of their food.”
The program was made possible by a donation of approximately $8,000 from Monogram Loves Kids, a charitable foundation run by food manufacturer Monogram Foods. Monogram, a Memphis company, operates a facility in Plover.
The nonprofit started by serving 30 meals a week at the high school in October, and due to demand, that was increased to 35 meals a week. Students lining up Tuesday had a selection of curries, sweet pork and boiled pork — recipes rooted in Hmong or wider Southeast Asian tradition — prepared by Ann Wang and Farmshed staff.
The goal for Central Rivers Farmshed next year, Ann Wang said, is to provide a rotating menu of different cultures prepared by people from those cultures, say Afghan or local cuisine. In the first year, the program focused mainly on Hmong and Southeast Asian dishes.
Sib Pab began providing food to Hmong elders while they were isolated at home during the pandemic through CAP services. The program was originally contracted through two Stevens Point Hmong restaurants and later moved to Central Rivers Farmshed in July 2020. The program began with two meals a day for 50 members of the Hmong community who were elderly or disabled.
Funding cuts prompted the program to cut back to one meal a week in August. In October, Monogram stepped in to fill a funding gap and expand the program to help Hmong high school students. Other financial sponsors include the Aging and Disability Resource Center.
“We contacted Ann to find out how we can help the Hmong community,” said Conrad Heisner, Monogram’s chief operating officer. “About 35% of our employees are Hmong. How do we support them?
To date, the SPASH program has prepared more than 8,000 meals for Hmong elders and students of color.
“Sib Pab is one of the few culturally specific food programs in the area and we all knew it was vital to continue this program,” said Ann Wang.
Ann Wang, who served one term on the Stevens Point School Board from 2020 to 2022, said Central Rivers Farmshed will ask the district to take over the program going forward. But, she said, they will also be looking for another round of grant funding through Monogram next year in case the county decides not to support it.
Sarah O’Donnell, a county spokeswoman, said the county hopes and intends to participate in the program, but the details have yet to be worked out. Key questions county officials are exploring include how to make the program accessible to the wider community, how to make it part of daily school meals, and how to fund the program.
Ann Wang said Central Rivers Farmshed’s goal is to increase access to culturally appropriate food throughout the region. She said they are working to see how they can bring culturally responsive lunches to Stevens Point middle and elementary schools as well as Wisconsin Rapids schools; connecting to Aspirus for culturally sensitive patient menu planning; setting up food boxes for Hmong elders in Portage County with the help of the Hunger Task Force; and holding a fundraiser with the American Hmong Association of Portage County to provide halal meat to Afghan refugees.
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Contact Alan Hovorka at 715-345-2252 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ajhovorka.