Cafeterias Unknown: Who was Anthony Bourdain?

“Eat and drink with people without fear and prejudice...they open up to you in ways that somebody visiting who is driven by a story may not get."

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Anthony Bourdain, chef, traveler, and storyteller; spent nearly 20 years sharing meals with people from around the world as part of his television series, A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, and Parts Unknown. Before becoming a television personality, Bourdain held the position of Chef at a number of NYC restaurants, including Supper Club, One Fifth Avenue, and Sullivans. Most notably, he was the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan for many years.

Between 2002 and 2018, Bourdain visited nearly 90 countries and filmed over 200 episodes about food culture around the world. While he spent much of his twenties and thirties stirring up trouble in professional kitchens around NYC, his television series often took a more serious tone. Bourdain used this platform to convey a sense of disappointment in modern food culture and maintained the opinion that food should be eaten thoughtfully and with others. According to the Washington Post, he once said in an interview with VPR,

“If you sit down with people and just say, ‘Hey, what makes you happy? What’s your life like? What do you like to eat?’ More often than not, they will tell you extraordinary things, many of which have nothing to do with food.”

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Our Farm to School team took that notion and ran with it—school cafeteria style. We may not have gotten quite as far as Bourdain. In fact, we didn’t get much further than Bellows Falls. But, we did decide that visiting school cafeterias to eat lunch with local students was going to be an important component of our programming moving forward. We wanted to know what their lives are like and what they like to eat. We wanted to confirm that the stigma around school meals really is changing. And, we’ve heard plenty of extraordinary things.

What Bourdain said was true; food is an incredible conduit for good conversation. While we may have strayed from this tradition a bit in recent years, sharing a meal with others in such an important and nourishing practice. Kids at school do it every day. They pile into the lunchroom with friends and catch up over sandwiches and cartons of milk. They are a jumble of lunchboxes, colorful trays, and winter jackets—and man, do they have a good time!

Anthony Bourdain was all about stepping outside of one’s comfort zone. For many of us adults, school lunch doesn’t quite fit inside that zone. It’s unfamiliar and in many cases, marred by our own primary school experiences. So, we jumped into that zone! We joined students, teachers, and food service professionals in the school food experience. We heard from students that they crave familiar, comforting, and fresh foods; as well as meals that allow for student choice. Food service professionals spoke about their commitment to serving nourishing meal and reducing food waste. And educators are keen to see school meal programs continue to evolve.

As school meal programs are a vital resource for many families, Food Connects is committed to supporting food service professionals in creating programs that they are proud of. Food plays an essential role in community building and we encourage you to learn more about your school meal program. Barack Obama once shared a meal with Anthony Bourdain. He recalls, “This is how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown.”

Celebrating National School Breakfast Week with Senator Becca Balint

Food Connects celebrated National School Breakfast Week during the first week of March by inviting Vermont State Senator Becca Balint to join Food Connects’ Farm to School Team, Sheila Humphreys and Kate Venne, for breakfast with Allegra Carignan’s Kindergarten class at Green Street School.  

Humphreys and Venne met Senator Balint at the school at 8:00 am, just as students were finding their way into classrooms to join their classmates for breakfast.  Green Street School serves Breakfast After the Bell in all classrooms, and breakfast participation at Green Street is the highest of all the schools in Windham County, with a whopping 89% of students participating!

As the special guests entered the classroom, they were greeted warmly by Ms. Carignan and her curious students. At Green Street School, breakfast is served in classrooms at the start of each day. The Food Connects team and Senator Becca Balint sat down to a meal of freshly baked blueberry muffins, cheese sticks, and fruit juice with a group of very sweet 5-year-olds.

Over breakfast, students reported that their favorite breakfast at school is bagels, except for the one student at the table who usually eats breakfast at home, and his favorite breakfast is Lucky Charms. Other commonly served breakfast items include hard boiled eggs, fresh toast, cereal, and scrambled eggs. The students chatted about their pets while Ms. Carignan circulated around the room greeting everyone and collecting their lunch orders. As the group finished breakfast, they joined their classmates on the rug to participate in the morning meeting and sing a song to start their day.

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After breakfast, Humphreys and Venne retired to the school library to talk with Senator Balint about the importance of school breakfast and other school meals. School breakfast, and particularly Breakfast After the Bell and Universal Meals, are a huge benefit to children in the Brattleboro community. When students are able to start their day with a nourishing breakfast that is available in the classroom to every student and doesn’t require a child to have to choose between eating breakfast at school in the morning or playing on the playground at the start of the day, more children eat breakfast which means improved behavior, improvements in school climate, more students who start the day ready to learn, and a reduction in nurse visits. In addition, Brattleboro Town Schools have Universal Meals, which is an enormous help to children in Brattleboro because it eliminates stigma and makes nourishing meals accessible to all students. Additionally, increased participation in school meal programs leads to increased financial viability, which ultimately results in improved food quality—commonly referred to as the Virtuous Cycle of School Meals!  

Have you eaten breakfast or lunch at a school lately? Food Connects and the Brattleboro Town Schools meal program encourages you to try it! In fact, Chef Ali West and Humphreys went to Montpelier a couple of weeks ago for School Nutrition Day at the State House and invited all of the legislators from WSESU to have breakfast or lunch in a school in their district. If you’d like to try a meal at a local school, just be sure to call ahead and let them know you’re coming!

Farm to School Program to Expand Professional Development Offerings

As farm to school programming continues to grow in local schools, Food Connects’ Farm to School team is gearing up to train and support even more educators. We are excited to connect with new teachers, child nutrition professionals, and community partners to share best practices from schools across Vermont and New England.

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We understand that connectedness is essential to the success of farm to school programming in southern Vermont. We know that this kind of education cannot happen in silos and it’s clear that our southern Vermont school partners feel the same way. In an effort to facilitate peer learning, resource sharing, and general connectedness in the farm to school community, Food Connects will kick off our “Let’s Grow Together” series of workshops for farm to school champions this spring. Workshops will be content-specific, including topics such as composting, seed-starting, cooking with kids, school food 101, farm to school curricular connections, and much more!

It is our hope that these workshops will serve as a space for farm to school partners to gather, learn, and inspire one another. By creating these “communities of practice,” we hope to help make farm to school programming easy, sustainable, and fun! Stay tuned for more details.

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We are eager to learn more about your professional development needs and interests, so please reach out to our team with any ideas you may have.

Learn more about our Let’s Grow Together series today!


Cafeterias Unknown: Academy School

Pictured: Jo Carol (left) and Ali West (right)

Pictured: Jo Carol (left) and Ali West (right)

On Tuesdays, we each nachos. For lunch. With refried beans and zesty potato wedges. Top it off with a local apple and you’ve got yourself lunch at Academy School in Brattleboro!

A few weeks back, I went to lunch with Jo Carol Ratti, principal of the Dummerston School for the past 20 years, who was keen to see what’s cookin’ in Brattleboro. So, we joined food service director, Ali West, for lunch at Academy School.

You might wonder what fueled Jo Carol’s curiosity. In her final year at Dummerston, she has been part of a movement that’s beginning to take place. A group of passionate parents has come together to support the school in improving food quality and re-envisioning the school lunch menu. School meals are a complicated world of USDA regulations, tight budgets, and particular customers—so Jo Carol decided to visit Brattleboro for some inspiration.

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The Brattleboro Town School District has improved food quality over the past 5 years by adopting a set of higher food standards and recruiting a stellar food service director to oversee their implementation. Simply put, Ali West is a Rockstar (with a capital R) and is fully committed to serving good food to her students each and every day. She sources a variety of locally grown products and works hard to ensure the district’s higher food standards are met each week.

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Luckily, Ali was able to sneak out of the kitchen for a few minutes to eat lunch and share some wisdom with us. We joined a group of students at the “peanut free” table and set to polishing off our nachos and beans. Academy’s cafeteria is in a shared space with the gymnasium. Students flow through the kitchen to pick up the lunch they ordered earlier in the day and then head next door to grab fruit and a place to sit. Each day, Ali and her staff fill a big bowl with local apples for students to grab as a final addition to their lunch. The menu for Brattleboro Town Schools is similar to other Cafe Services schools, with a few twists. Ali offers local apples and yogurt each day, as well as vegetarian options for students. Her March menu features vegan “Neatballs” and a BBQ tofu sandwich, to replace items featuring animal proteins. The district has eliminated a variety of unhealthy ingredients, including things like high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, and food dyes.

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Ali and her staff connect with Academy students during meal times and have found creative ways to increase participation in school meals. The lunch line is adorned with colorful VT Harvest of the Month posters as well as pictures featuring local farms. To top it all off, the kitchen door boasts its very own “farm to school” sign.

All in all, a fulfilling experience. Until next time Academy!

Cafeterias Unknown: Dummerston Elementary School

February 8, 2019 - Dummerston Elementary School

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Pizza day, oh blessed pizza day! A few weeks back, I got to spend my Friday afternoon lunchtime with a gaggle of first graders at Dummerston Elementary School. What began as a table of 2 quickly turned into a table of 12—those kids sure were eager to tell me stories about their day (and their whole lives)! The majority of my table had school lunch, with a few bringing lunches from home.

From the lunch line, I went with a big slice of pepperoni pizza, a maple-balsamic spinach salad with strawberries, sliced cukes, baby carrots, canned pears and a carton of 2% milk. Oh! And one scrumptious local apple from Green Mountain Orchards in Putney.

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In Dummerston, the kitchen is run by a staff of two—Tracey & Lori of Cafe Services. They cook for about 80 students each day. This year, they are working to decrease waste by switching from plastic to reusable lunch containers. Additionally, they are hoping to eliminate a variety of unhealthy ingredients, increase local purchasing and provide lower sugar content foods whenever possible.

Lunch was super fun. We talked about what it would be like to milk a cow. We talked about what a baked brie and jam birthday cake would taste like. And we took some photos with our eyes closed (just to see what it would look like). Overall, a Friday afternoon well spent.

Eating lunch (or any meal!) with others is always a pleasure—I encourage you to share a meal with friends or colleagues this week!

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Breakfast at Elm Hill Elementary

I arrived at Elm Hill elementary school in Springfield, VT early on Wednesday morning. Children and families were beginning to trickle inside, some headed to early morning recess and others headed to the cafeteria for breakfast. My mission? Learn more about the school’s efforts to increase food access by moving breakfast after the bell!

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Elm Hill hosts children from kindergarten through second grade, after which time they head across town to Union Street School for grades three through five. Elm Hill sits at what appears to be the top of Springfield, overlooking the city. The building is full of light and adorned with colorful student art. Principal Dr. Christine Pereira and her staff greet students with a warm welcome as they arrive for the day.

This year, the school has implemented new strategies to support positive student behavior. Classrooms have adopted the practice of being “responsive,” working with students to create and uphold classroom expectations throughout the day. Another aspect of this new programming has been to increase the time period during which students can get breakfast in the morning.

In the past, students chose between recess and breakfast before the start of the school day. When you’re 6 years old, you may deem playing with your friends more important than having breakfast. Fair enough. But, as we know, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. A student who hasn’t eaten is much more likely to be distracted or distracting to their peers. Christine and her staff understand breakfast to be an essential part of their students’ ability to focus, participate and learn. Christine emphasized, “I didn’t want there to be a barrier for my students to access food.”

So, this school year, breakfast has been extended into the first part of the school day. Teachers may choose to send students to the cafeteria for breakfast or host the meal in the classroom as they give announcements and begin the day. In this way, teachers are able to make the new practice work for their classroom. Christine mentioned that while there was some initial hesitation based on previous challenges with breakfast after the bell, the school is now really embracing the new system. More students are participating in breakfast, and students are connecting with each other in new ways.

My visit finished with a tour of the school, including the cafeteria, which was full of light, hanging plants, and happy students. The food program is managed by Anna Tewksbury, of Cafe Services, with two additional full-time staff supporting her. Kids selected from a variety of breakfast options—including scrambled eggs, muffins, fruit, orange juice, and milk. Many students were eating together at round tables, while others trekked back to the classroom with full trays.

While we can’t necessarily attribute it to changes in breakfast programming, student behavior has generally improved this school year. It’s likely that increased access to breakfast has contributed to that in some way. Elm Hill staff has been proactive in their efforts to support student success and their efforts are paying off.

On my way out of town, I happened to run into a few Elm Hill parents at a coffee shop and we got to talking about school breakfast. They expressed support and gratitude for the extended breakfast period this school year, noting that it “feels much more inclusive!” This program helps to relieve the stress that busy parents feel in the morning and promotes community building within the school. In Springfield, food service has embraced these changes and we hope to see this type of programming continue to expand throughout the district.

By: Kate Venne, Farm to School Manager