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.

What is winter good for? Taste testing!

What is winter good for? Harvest of the Month Taste Tests, of course! Many schools in and around Vermont offer monthly taste tests in order to engage students in the cooking and tasting of new foods. The goal of the Harvest of the Month program is to “promote seasonal eating, encourage healthy diets and support the local economy.” At some schools, educators partner with cafeteria staff to prepare and serve the taste test. At others, samples are prepared and served by students.

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Student gardeners at Riverside Middle School keep busy during the winter months by coordinating monthly taste tests for their peers. Each month, they feature a different VT Harvest of the Month product, including kale, sweet potatoes, and winter squash this fall. These students make up the after-school garden club/summer camp, Lettuce Grow Food. In addition to coordinating taste tests during the school year, they also grow food during the spring and summer that is then featured at Riverside’s annual Back to School BBQ. Other products from the garden are shared with community members in need.

Due to their continued commitment to local food and nutrition education, Riverside Middle School received a 2-year Farm to School grant from the VT Agency of  Agriculture Food & Markets last school year. This funding will allow them to accomplish a number of Farm to School goals, including:

  • Expanding the school’s composting program

  • Professional development for all staff

  • Integration of food system curricular units in the classroom

  • Increasing the amount of local food being used in the school’s cafeteria

Thanks to Corrinne Kanser, Becca Osborn, Becca Polk, Cliff Weyer, Nate McNaughton and Martha Tarbell for their work in implementing these goals at Riverside!

Food4Kids is a Success!

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Putney Foodshelf’s new program at Putney Central School, “Food4Kids,” has been incredibly successful so far this school year. Participation in the Food4Kids food shelf has been quite high, with nearly 70% of students impacted by the program. Modeled after Guilford Central’s food shelf program, Food4Kids offers free food to all students one day each week. The program is generously organized and staffed by volunteers from the town food shelf and Putney families have been extremely supportive. According to Executive Director of the Putney Foodshelf, Hannah Pick, Food4Kids’ success is in large part due to the incredible collaboration of school faculty & staff, administrators, families, and Foodshelf volunteers.

Food4Kids is a member of the Vermont Foodbank and has received a wide variety of products to offer its students this fall, including things like cereal, canned soups, and other snacks. Foodshelf staff make it a point to include items that meet students’ dietary restrictions as well as a few fresh items each week, such as apples and carrots for snacking. Older students at the school have engaged in food shelf operations by volunteering to stock shelves and keep things tidy. Favorite items so far have been apples, granola bars, canned fruit, fresh produce, and mac and cheese. Hannah mentions that “The kids love coming to Food4Kids. It’s so heartwarming to see. Many parents have told us that their kids are proud of the food they’ve chosen, and some have been inspired to try cooking at home”.

Other school-based food shelves in Windham County include Food for Kids at Guilford Central School and Leland & Gray’s food shelf for middle and high school students in Townshend. Whenever possible, school food shelves offer local items to students, including items like squash and apples.

Oak Grove School's Pumpkin Harvest

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Galen Kemp’s 2nd grade class at Oak Grove School in Brattleboro, VT recently harvested a bumper crop of pumpkins and butternut squash. This was a great victory for the school garden. Since the garden’s beginnings over 10 years ago, various classrooms have attempted to grow pumpkins and winter squash, and the results have been disappointing. Very small and very few pumpkins growing in the fall would repeatedly disappear from the garden just before classes were ready to harvest them.

This year, the plants were heavy with fruit and no one interfered with the harvest. One of the reasons for a successful squash harvest this year was that these plants were started inside by Erek Tuma’s 4th grade class last spring utilizing their classroom grow cart with seeds donated by the Vermont Community Garden Network. The seedlings were planted in early June by Ms. Kemp’s 2nd graders with support from Food Connects summer garden intern Celia Feal-Staub and tended all summer by Celia and volunteer Oak Grove families.

The fall harvest began with a lesson in the classroom to teach students how to determine when a pumpkin is ready for harvesting. They learned to assess the coloring, the hardness of the rind, and the sound when knocking on the outside of the pumpkin to make sure it was ready to pick. They learned to leave a 3-4 inch stem on each pumpkin to allow the fruit to keep longer, and they learned about curing them in the sun for about a week before storing them in a cool, dry place until they are ready to be used.  

Then, students proceeded to the garden for the harvest. The class was divided into 2 groups of approximately 10 students. Each group took time walking around the garden, identifying a variety of garden plants, locating the pumpkins and squash, counting the total before harvesting, and using their math and problem solving skills to determine a fair process so that each group would harvest a similar number and each child could be part of the harvest. Then came the big moment—the harvest! With adult help, stems were cut and children happily carried pumpkins back into the school and placed them in a sunny window to cure.

The pumpkins and squash are currently in cold storage at the Brattleboro Food Co-op, and they will be turned into a mashed squash side dish for Oak Grove’s harvest dinner later this month. The squash cooking lesson will be led by the Co-op’s dynamic nutrition educator, Lizi Rosenberg. This is Farm to School at it’s best, kids involved in hands-on learning in the garden and in the classroom, sharing the fruits of their labor with the larger community!


Windham County Farm to School Celebration was a Success!

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Our Farm to School Celebration on October 11 was a success! Thanks to all the Farm to School champions from the area who joined us. We had 25 attendees representing food service, education, and administration from schools across the county. Our participants enjoyed an evening of inspiring stories, networking, and delicious food in a beautiful setting! Thanks to the Retreat Farm for allowing us to hold the event in their gorgeous space and to Tito’s Taqueria for catering a tasty taco bar featuring local produce donated by Harlow Farm. And finally, thank you to our sponsor, the Farm to School Network, for allowing us to host this wonderful event.

We learned so much great information from our speakers! Ali West, food service director for the Brattleboro Town Schools, shared her passion for making sure all children are well nourished and that no student is stigmatized due to his or her family’s socio-economic status. She highlighted her successes with universal meals, share coolers, and Breakfast After the Bell programs in the Brattleboro Town Schools. Shane Rogers, Project Manager for Rooted in Vermont, talked about his efforts to bring the local food movement to more Vermonters by focusing on traditions in Vermont families that go back for generations, like hunting, fishing, foraging, and gardening and through his use of social media to highlight average Vermonters and his use of the #rootedinvermont hashtag. Wayne Kermenski and Jeanne Bruffee inspired us by telling the story of Hawlemont Regional Elementary School in Charlemont, MA, which, when faced by the challenge of declining enrollment, reinvented itself as a project-based learning institution with a focus on agriculture. Students have risen to the occasion, learning the value of hard work through participation in regular chores, producing their own vegetables and value added products like homemade salsa which are sold at a weekly farmer’s market at the school, and as a result behavior problems have decreased, test scores have improved, and the school has doubled in size since the program began.

In the words of some of our participants:

“All of it was wonderful really, seeing the farm, meeting people and networking and learning about all of the wonderful programs in the works!”

“It was really great to hear about what is happening locally with Farm to School.”

“I really enjoyed hearing from Wayne and Jeanne—what an inspiring story!”

If you missed it this time, no worries! We plan to do more gatherings like this in the near future. Stay tuned!


Windham County Farm to School Celebration

Join Food Connects, in partnership with the Vermont Farm to School Network, in celebrating Farm to School efforts across Windham County! 

Taste some delicious tacos by Tito's Taquerianetwork and discuss ideas with fellow farm to school advocates, and learn more about what's happening in Windham County this year.

RSVP TODAY!

Have questions? Contact Kate at 802-451-0510 or kate@foodconnects.org.

*Professional development certificates will be available for all participants.

Windham County schools have a fruitful fall, freezing 350 lbs of local berries for the school year

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October is Farm-to-School month and that means school kitchens are filled with… berries! Food service providers at Academy School and Brattleboro Union High School are hard at work freezing over 350 lbs of berries so their students can snack on local fruits all winter long."The town of Brattleboro and Fresh Picks Café strive to make delicious, local healthy food available to all our students. By purchasing local berries we are not only providing our students with nutritionally superior produce but also supporting our local community and farmers. Our students love our fruit and yogurt parfaits and introducing homemade muffins using frozen local berries has been a huge hit. Freezing berries is the easiest way to preserve the fresh taste and nutrition in local produce. For us, buying local is a win-win option and we at Fresh Picks Café are committed to buying local whenever we can!" explains Ali West, Food Service Director at Academy School. These schools, along with 27 others, are regular buyers of local food through the Food Connects Food Hub, an aggregation and distribution food hub serving Southern Vermont and New Hampshire. The food hub currently works with over 45 producers and 100 wholesale buyers, delivering local products to the region four days a week.

Berries are just one of the many local products regularly delivered to school cafeterias on the Food Connects refrigerated truck. Others items include apples, yogurt, pudding, lettuce and potatoes. The food hub provides convenient access to local products, supporting schools as they work to increase their local food purchasing, a statewide goal put forward by Farm to Plate in Vermont’s food system plan. Food Connects, the nonprofit behind the food hub, is a part of the Farm to Plate Network - a coalition of over 350 farms, food production businesses, educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, capital providers and government - working to make this goal a reality.

Food Connects encourages areas schools to purchase at least 10% of their annual food budget from local producers.They make it simple for schools and institutions to purchase source-identified local food through their food hub, and further guide efforts through their innovative programming. Their Farm to School Program provides schools educational support through the Harvest of the Month and Try-A-Bite curricula, while also offering equipment and professional development to food service providers so they are equipped to work with seasonal, local foods.

Thanks to the support from community members and schools across the county, area schools are succeeding in rapidly increasing their local food purchases. This September, school purchases through the Food Connects Food Hub more than doubled from September 2016. The impact of increased local purchasing can be seen in the fact that Food Connects Food Hub sales have just surpassed $1.5 million. This means more money remains in the local economy, returning to area producers.

Food Connects and its partners are committed to increasing local purchasing one berry at a time - supporting area producers and feeding Vermont’s children nutritious food in the process.