Cafeterias Unknown: NewBrook Elementary School

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We were lucky to catch NewBrook during Diversity Week in January. Chef Chris went with a Greek-themed lunch, including Gyros, orzo pasta salad, and fruit. Oh, and a fully stocked salad bar, of course!

This time around, I was lucky to have my partner in crime—Sheila! Sheila Humphreys is my farm to school partner at Food Connects and we decided to treat ourselves to a Friday afternoon out on the town—aka NewBrook Elementary’s cafeteria. We arrived at noon to a cafeteria full of second graders. Lunch was being served by Chef Chris and his assistant for the day, Principal Scotty Tabachnick. We each got a gyro with meatballs, tzatziki sauce, and crisp red onion, pasta salad, green salad, and fresh fruit. Oh, and my fave—cottage cheese.

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We were lucky enough to snag a seat with some second-grade boys, James & Nolan. Nolan was having bagged lunch from home, while James munched on a gyro. We chatted about their favorite school lunch items. Nolan loves shepherds’ pie and hot dogs. They also let us know that Chef Chris makes some darn good waffles in the morning. James eats breakfast at school every day.  

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NewBrook puts on a “community lunch” each month, typically featuring produce and meats from local farms. The school accepts donations in any amount and encourages families and community members to join students for lunch. Check it out sometime soon! Don’t want to go alone? Give us a call—we are always happy to dig into a good school lunch!

Next up? Dummerston on February 8th for pizza day—I might even treat myself to a carton of milk!

Library Takes the Lead on Farm to School in Westminster

Thanks to one dedicated librarian, students at Westminster Community School were able to spend a large majority of their reading time in the garden this fall. Mandy Walsh, the current librarian in Westminster and former art and library teacher in Grafton, is eager to get her students outside as often as possible. She manages the school’s large teaching garden—using the space to teach her students how to plant, nurture and harvest their own produce.

One favorite activity is the Salsa Scavenger Hunt, in which students harvest tomatoes, peppers, onions, and other salsa ingredients from the garden and then turn them into a big batch of salsa for snacking. In addition to food-growing activities, Mandy reads with students in the “sunflower classroom,” a large space encircled by sunflowers.

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“We planted during camp in cups of dirt and added the seeds” - Maci, WCS student

“It was so cool because there are sunflowers everywhere that we read books and talk and play” - Alden, WCS student

It’s not just library classes that benefit from this kind of education—a number of teachers partner with Mandy throughout the school year to take their classes into the garden as well. Westminster Community Schools are more committed than ever to find ways for students to engage with nature. In fact, each Friday, Kindergartners spend the day in the school’s outdoor classroom.

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“This is the boundary of our outdoor classroom. From this spot I can see water and different trees. I like to listen to the sound of the running river from this spot” - Elliot, WCS Student

This spring, Westminster students look forward to a number of projects, including a garlic harvest, spring garden clean-up, and a number of fun cooking projects. This year, Mandy is also excited to plant a number of crops to be harvested in time for next fall’s annual Thanksgiving Supper at the school.

“I love planning, with our staff, for our spring planting and fall harvest during the heart of winter.” - Mandy Walsh

Garlic planting in October—they planted over 200 “garlic seeds!”

Garlic planting in October—they planted over 200 “garlic seeds!”

Cafeterias Unknown: Westminster Community Schools

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My first lunch date was with Mandy Walsh, Westminster Center School’s librarian and garden extraordinaire. Because I’m a grown-up, she even let me eat lunch in the library with her—ssh, don’t tell!

We chatted about her garden plans over VT beef tacos and mixed greens salad. I loaded my taco up with sour cream and salsa. In true kiddo fashion, I kept my black beans in a separate compartment on my tray—didn’t want them mingling with my cottage cheese!

Westminster’s salad bar was loaded up with tender greens and a variety of veggies and dressings. I went with a big helping of greens, olives, and a dash of ranch dressing and treated myself to a small helping of cottage cheese as well. Last, but certainly not least, I grabbed a crisp, local apple from Green Mountain Farm. Voila! No lack of color on that tray!

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The cafeteria, deemed the Farm to School Café, is adorned with a colorful mural and plenty of student art. Inside, you will find Melissa Bacon and Sarah Allaire. Melissa is a local parent and began her culinary career when her kids entered school. She is an outdoor enthusiast and she has the coolest last name EVER. Sarah also began cooking when her son entered kindergarten. She is an avid gardener, making her the perfect fit for a school like Westminster.

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Melissa and Sarah source local beef from Big Picture Farm and local apples from Green Mountain Orchards. Oftentimes, local greens come from Harlow Farm just down the road!

Though I didn’t get to hang out in the cafeteria, Mandy and I did have a grand ol’ time talking shop about farm to school in the library. On my way out, I ran into a few old friends from my last lunch date at Westminster. Until next time Westminster—thanks for the treats!

Cafeterias Unknown

One gal’s journey into the world of school lunch.

When my Food Connects team posed the question, “what’s one big goal you have for 2019?” I paused. What would I set out to achieve in this new year? Overhaul school meal regulatory systems? Build more school gardens? Combat food insecurity by campaigning for school meal participation? Well, yes, I wanted to do ALL of those things, but another idea came bubbling to the surface. I would eat school lunch at all of the 25+ schools that we support in Southern Vermont.

I spend my days thinking about, talking about, and (sometimes) dreaming about school lunch! But I realized I haven’t actually enjoyed a school lunch for quite some time—since high school, in fact! Back in those days, I ate school lunch every day. My favorites included the “pizza boat,” canned peaches and, of course, strawberry milk. Well, things have changed a bit since then. School cafeterias in and around Brattleboro and Bellows Falls offer all sorts of delicious treats these days. Think corn chowder with homemade ciabatta rolls or roasted root vegetable pot pie or Grafton cheddar mac & cheese. Can you say YUMMO?! My mouth is already watering.

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And so my adventure begins. As I’m sure many of you have been dying to know how school lunch has evolved over the past 10 or so years, I will do my best to document this journey. Stay tuned for anecdotes, photos and plenty of vegetable-related puns.

Bon appetit!

-Kate

The Transformative Power of Stories

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Do you have a farmer elder in your past? An agrarian ancestor? A parent, grandparent, great grandparent, or someone even further back who worked the land? What do you know about that person? What was their life like? What is their story? Our farm to school team was recently asked these questions by Onika Abraham, director of Farm School NYC  at the Massachusetts Farm & Sea to School Conference.

Sharing the stories of our ancestors and their relationship to the land and to each other is powerful. Not only does the sharing of our stories build community, but also these stories shine a light on the roots of oppression of our current food system, strengthening our resolve to change the system to make it more equitable and just for all people.

What are your stories? What can we learn from our collective past to help us build a more equitable and just food system going forward? Onika shared some amazing stories with us...

  • We heard about a 3 acre plot of Nipmuc land, the only remaining land in Massachusetts that has never been owned or occupied by non-native people.

Our own stories and the stories above can be shared with students and colleagues to dig deeper into the history of our food system. By sharing stories that aren’t part of the dominant narrative, we can create new narratives of farm and food education and transform the culture of food in our schools and communities. What are your stories and how do they fit into the history of our food system? Please email us your stories—we would love to hear them!


School Meals: A Priority in the Dummerston Community

The newly formed School Food & Wellness Committee in Dummerston, a partnership of parents, community members, and school staff, is excited to roll out some changes in the cafeteria this year. Inspired by the Farm-to-School movement in Vermont and eager to offer the most nutritious meals to their students, this committee came together to set some food-related goals for the coming year. These include:

  1. Improving food quality

  2. Using more locally-sourced ingredients

  3. Reducing waste & packaging

  4. Linking food and nutrition with improved learning and curriculum

The group is excited to work with Food Connects and new Kitchen Manager, Tracey Provencher of Cafe Services, to begin moving the needle on these four initiatives. Big picture goals include raising the funds necessary to eliminate all processed meats, high-fructose corn syrup, trans-fats, hydrogenated oils, and a number of other unhealthy ingredients. The team also hopes to support Tracey in reducing the sugar content in foods served in the cafeteria.

As for local sourcing, Tracey is committed to incorporating products such as yogurt, apples, potatoes, and other seasonal vegetables from local farms throughout the school year. Sourcing in this manner is likely to reduce packaging.

Initial successes have included:

  • Developing new systems for communicating food choices to students

  • Piloting a reusable lunch box container

  • Purchasing of new equipment for the cafeteria—including a potato wedger and warming oven

  • Installation of a new recycling container in the cafeteria with clear signage for recycling and compost

What’s next?

  • Installation of a “share cooler,” so that students may share unwanted lunch items with peers

  • Continued work on the elimination of a variety of unhealthy ingredients in cafeteria foods

By eliminating a number of unhealthy ingredients and sourcing high quality, local produce, the committee is confident that overall meal quality will improve this school year.


Deepening our Work in the Brattleboro Schools

Food Connects was recently awarded two grants that will enable us to increase our commitment to building healthy families, thriving farms, and connected communities in Brattleboro.

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Building Resiliency in Brattleboro Town Schools with help from the Thompson Trust

With the support of a $20,000 2-year grant from the Thompson Trust, Food Connects is excited to deepen our work in the Brattleboro Town Schools, strengthening nutrition and Farm to School programming as part of an effort to develop a Trauma-Informed approach to education in the Brattleboro Town Schools.

Trauma-Informed education provides support for students with high Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) scores. The ACE study measures 10 types of childhood trauma, including abuse, neglect (including persistent food insecurity), domestic violence, separation or divorce, substance abuse, mental illness, and incarceration. As ACE scores increase, so does the risk of disease, social, and emotional problems. The traumatic stress experienced by children with ACE scores of 4 or more has been linked to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential, and early death. Brattleboro Town Schools are actively engaged in conversations about how to support these students to have better outcomes, and we are proud to partner with them in this important work.

The objectives of this grant are to improve faculty & staff understanding of the connection between nutrition and trauma, to increase schools' capacity for coordinating food and trauma education and activities, and to strengthen local food purchasing and promotion by school cafeterias.

Collaborating with the Vermont Department of Health to Bring Healthier Food to Brattleboro Schools

In partnership with the VT Department of Health, we've been awarded $4,900 in funding to increase food access and improve student nutrition in Brattleboro schools. We will provide additional support to food service staff at BUHS, BAMS, and the Brattleboro Towns Schools. Key activities will include: 1) purchasing kitchen equipment that will aide in the processing of more whole, fresh ingredients 2) investing in school meal marketing materials to promote school meals to kids and families, and 3) technical assistance provided to food service professionals around menu planning, marketing, and related activities, and technical assistance provided to food service professionals around menu planning, marketing, and related activities.

We’re looking forward to digging deeper into the relationship between trauma and food and exploring about how school gardens, community harvest celebrations, and healthier food choices in the cafeteria can nurture the most vulnerable students in our community and help them to grow and flourish!


Universal Meals Making Lunches Accessible

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In the Southern Connecticut Valley Region, 1 in 7 children lives in a food insecure household. For these children, in particular, school meals are an important resource during the week. While many qualify for free or reduced meals at school, families don’t always take advantage of this program. Despite the hard work that had been done by schools and the community organizations that support them, schools still face the challenge of overcoming stigma when it comes to reduced-price meals. For this reason, a number of local schools now offer Universal Free School Meals, a federally funded provision that allows schools to offer meals at no cost to families. This program helps schools to maximize funds, reduce paperwork, improve nutrition and ultimately, eliminate stigma. Participating schools in the Connecticut River Valley include Academy School, Oak Grove School, Green Street School, Brattleboro Union High School (BUHS), Brattleboro Area Middle School, NewBrook Elementary School,  Charlestown Primary School, and Winchester Public Schools.

Nationwide, school meal participation hovers between 50 and 60 percent. At schools where meals are offered free to all students, participation generally increases. One such example is Oak Grove School in Brattleboro—73% of students participate in school lunch. According to Hunger Free Vermont,

“Universal Free School Meals is a model that allows all students to eat school meals for free. This allows the school to build the meal program into the overall curriculum, creating a learning lab for healthy eating and a mealtime experience where every kid is equal and enjoys their meals together. Studies show that universal free school meal programs increase participation, leading to better student health and learning AND a strong school meals business. When participation is up, school meal programs have more resources to invest in even higher quality food, including local many local foods. Universal free school meals models are good for students, good for schools, and good for Vermont's local economy.”

Universal School Meals is a smart idea for a number of reasons. First, it allows food service professionals to get back to the most important part of their job—cooking! Universal Meals programming helps get cooks back in the kitchen by significantly reducing the amount of paperwork a school meal program must submit to the federal government each month. Second, Universal Meals reduces stigma by taking away the categories of free, reduced, and full-pay students—reducing student hunger and improving student nutrition. Lastly, a well-run Universal Meals program will eventually result in more stable program finances for that school, which in turn allows food service professionals to source better ingredients, including locally grown and made products. In fact, the Brattleboro Town School District was able to purchase more than $10,000 worth of local food from Food Connects Food Hub last school year. This included products like yogurt, apples, berries, granola, potatoes, and other vegetables.

Universal Meals has been very successful at all of the aforementioned schools. Steve Perrin, principal at Brattleboro Union High School, confirms that Universal Meals had been an improvement to their meal program as well. He says, “In the time we've implemented Universal Meals at BUHS, we've seen a significant increase in the number of meals served, both for breakfast and lunch. The overall response from families has been very supportive and we've had several parents thank us for taking this step. I'm grateful that our school board and central office staff see this as a priority.  It is a simple fact that if we're hungry, we can't learn as well. This program directly benefits our students who have food insecurity.”

Food insecurity impacts students year round, not just during the school year. All families should know that there are a variety of food and meal resources available when school is not in session, including community meals, food shelves, and fresh food drops. Visit vermont211.org or www.211nh.org for more information on food resources in Vermont. Many of these resources are available year-round and some have specific eligibility requirements.