Bellows Falls Expands Farm to School Programming

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This past September, Windham Northeast Supervisory Union kicked off a new school meal program: the Farm to School Cafe. Led by Food Service Director Harley Sterling, the Farm to School Cafe model is thriving in Bellows Falls and the surrounding towns, including Westminster, Grafton, Athens, and Saxtons River. While breakfast and lunch menus still look familiar to students and families, they now feature a variety of locally grown products and the large majority of meals are prepared from scratch. Students at these schools are enjoying things like locally raised beef, potatoes, carrots, corn, tortillas, beans, dairy, maple syrup and more!

According to Sterling, this new model has been well received by students and faculty alike.

“We get excited every time we see a new face come through the lunch line or we can get someone to try something for the first time and they end up loving it. Just knowing that the kids in these communities have access to the very best food every day in school—there is no better feeling. We’re seeing steady gains in student participation, especially at the schools where we’ve made the biggest changes. We had pretty terrific programs at Saxtons River, Grafton, and Westminster. At the Bellows Falls schools, we’ve seen about a 5% bump already this first year. We have also seen sales to adults triple. We feel like this is a really great leading measure of how good our meals are since adults have the choice to buy whatever they want for lunch. The fact that they are choosing to spend their money on the same food we serve to students speaks to the quality that our school chefs are serving up.”

Administrators within the school district have also welcomed these positive cafeteria changes and intend to build on them wherever possible. In fact, the district’s wellness committee, led by assistant superintendent Lynn Carey, just received a $15,000 grant from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food & Markets to support farm to school initiatives at Bellows Falls Middle School. The school is excited to use this funding for updating kitchen equipment, re-building garden beds, re-envisioning cafeteria space, and hosting a community meal & garden tour this summer.

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The team, which also includes Art teacher, MaryLou Massouco, Family & Consumer Sciences teacher, Jane Mitchell, Finance Specialist, Shawna Coutu, and Food Service Director, Harley Sterling, has set some lofty farm to schools goals, including new projects in the classroom, cafeteria, and community. Carey says, “I am proud of the improvements accomplished since we brought our food services in house with Harley.” She looks forward to coupling these changes with efforts in the classroom and community.

Others schools in the district are also eager to engage students in farm to school education. Westminster Center School and Grafton Elementary were recently accepted to attend the Northeast Farm to School Institute, a year-long professional development opportunity for twelve school teams from New England and New York, hosted by Vermont FEED. The institute kicks off this June at Shelburne Farms and includes three full days of action planning, professional learning, and networking with like-minded individuals from across the northeast. Grafton Elementary principal, Liz Harty, and Westminster Center School librarian, Mandy Walsh, are excited to use this opportunity as a way to partner more intentionally and bring new and engaging activities to their students. Harty says, “We are excited to expand on what we already have in place and provide students with more authentic learning opportunities."

Windham Northeast is part of a larger movement in Vermont to reconnect students with their food. The local food system is vibrant and the schools are stepping up to further strengthen it. In order to create resilient communities in southern Vermont, educators are beginning to talk with students about where their food comes from and engage them in hands-on learning to reinforce farm to school concepts. Classrooms are visiting local farms, working in school gardens, cooking with teachers and connecting with their environment in new and exciting ways. The region partners with a local farm to school organization, Food Connects, an entrepreneurial non-profit that delivers locally produced food as well as educational and consulting services aimed at transforming local food systems.