During the last week of June, our Farm to School team had the privilege of coaching two amazing teams of educators, school nutrition professionals, and administrators from Windham County at the Northeast Farm to School Summer Institute at Shelburne Farms. We spent three days on the shores of Lake Champlain, immersed in learning about what makes a Farm to School program vibrant and robust, and working with our teams on their action plans for the coming year.
The team from Academy School in Brattleboro is a newly formed committee, and they have several goals, including:
Research what thriving Farm to School programs in nearby communities look like
Establish a vibrant Farm to School committee with broad grade level representation and strong support from school administration
Recruit at least one family member to join the committee
Increase breakfast participation by making changes to the breakfast structure
The team from Windham Northeast includes representatives from Grafton and Westminster Elementary schools who are passionate about connecting their classrooms with the incredible local food that’s now being served in cafeterias across the Supervisory Union. Their vision is to “create food experiences that nourish, inspire and educate” and some of their goals are:
To implement a VT Harvest of the Month Taste Test Program
To host a student-led Thanksgiving feast featuring local and garden produce at each school
To create and maintain school gardens, including compost collection
To begin shifting the culture around school food by educating faculty and staff about school meal and farm to school programming
To promote farm to school within their community
This June, our Farm to School team had the pleasure of working alongside Rachel Harb, of Massachusetts Farm to School, at the Northeast Farm to School Institue in Northern Vermont. Mass Farm to School, a statewide network comprised of educators, food service professionals, farmers, fisherman, and other advocates, seeks to "strengthen local farms and fisheries and promote healthy communities by increasing local food purchasing and education at schools." Like Food Connects, Massachusetts Farm to School staff offer training, technical assistance, and consulting to farm to school champions around the state, in an effort to support local food initiatives classrooms, cafeterias and communities.
Know someone who lives just over the border? Encourage them to reach out and get involved in the Massachusetts Farm to School movement to support the continued growth of a resilient Northeast economy and landscape.
FRUITS OF OUR LABOR
With the school year wrapped up and summer in full swing, Food Connect’s Farm to School team is switching gears! Before jumping into summer programming, we reflected on what we accomplished during the school year. We continue to be inspired by the progress our member schools are making in their Farm to School efforts. In fact, this school year:
7 new schools created Farm to School action plans
75% of FC member schools report significant progress was made on their action plan
77 educators participated in Farm to School professional development
6 schools received new funding for farm to school programming
89% of FC member schools were able to better integrate the “3 C’s of Farm to School” (classroom, cafeteria, community)
Farm to School programs are positively impacting the local economy by helping to reduce childhood hunger.
This year, local food purchasing by FC member schools increased by 43%! We know that for every dollar spent on local, 60 cents goes back to the local economy.
Nearly half of FC member schools saw an increase in breakfast and lunch participation by free and reduced students this year. Some of this can be attributed to new programming such as Breakfast After the Bell and Universal Meals.
Over 100 community organization and school staff received professional development to improve Farm to School programming.
NOURISHING OUR COMMUNITY
We are eager to stay connected to students and families throughout the summer when local farms are bursting with fresh produce. This summer, we will run two programs, including our Summer Garden Program and a new Local Food Taste Testing Program in collaboration with Retreat Farm.
The Summer Garden Program includes garden support for 5 local schools, ensuring that the gardens are healthy and ready to harvest come September. Tara Gordon, Green Street School Garden Coordinator, will lead summer programming at all 5 schools this year.
Local Food Taste Testing, led by Keene State College Dietetic Intern Carissa Brewton, will take place on Fridays throughout the summer at Retreat Farm, in conjunction with Summer Meals—free meals provided to students under the age of 18. Swing by the farm to sample fun foods and participate in Farm to School activities with your little ones.
PLANTING NEW SEEDS
Our Farm to School team is looking forward to piloting some new and innovative projects this fall. Sheila Humphreys, Food Connect’s Farm to School Coordinator, will be exploring connections between the Farm to School and Trauma Informed approaches to education this fall with WSESU educators and other school-based staff. She will partner with VT Trauma Informed expert, Joelle Van Lent, to host a day-long training for school counselors, nurses, behavior specialists, and food service professionals. This project is funded by the Thomas Thompson Trust and will span three years. Year two of the project will focus on creating cafeteria settings that are comfortable, peaceful, and conducive to making good food choices and year three will include work around youth engagement in farm to school programming.
This summer, Food Connects is preparing for its 5th Annual Farm to School Conference. With lots of new staff coming on board over the past two years, we took a break from organizing this event. But, this year WE ARE BACK! The conference will take place in April and will include an array of wonderful workshops on topics such as curriculum integration, marketing, cooking with kids, parent engagement, and more! Stay tuned for details.
Much of this summer will be dedicated to planning for the next school year. We have lots of great information to digest from our spring stakeholder survey and plenty of qualitative feedback to keep us energized and inspired. One of our favorite quotes was, “Food Connects is awesome. You guys are all over the map with the ways you support our district’s Farm to School efforts, and as we have said before, the most important thing you give us is a sense of friendship and community - a bunch of absolutely great people all working on a little piece of this food system revolution”. Viva la revolution!
Food Connects extends a warm welcome to Tara Gordon—our new summer garden program coordinator for five area schools this summer (Academy, Green Street, Oak Grove, Guilford, and Vernon). Tara is a mother of two, has a multidisciplinary background in the biological sciences, was the Garden Coordinator for Putney Central School for three years, and is now the Green Street School Garden Coordinator. Tara finds gardening to be a wonderful way to instill a sense of purpose, a practical way to grow awareness of our place in nature, a way to cultivate our curiosity and creativity as caregivers, and a way to develop a closer interrelationship with the natural world. She is looking forward to working in the gardens with students and families over the summer. She will be holding weekly garden hours, starting the week June 24, for families at each school to get involved throughout summer vacation.
Guilford: Mondays 9:30 to 11:30 am
Oak Grove: Tuesdays 9:30 to 11:30 am
Green Street School: Tuesdays 5:30 to 7:30 pm
Vernon: Wednesdays 5:30 to 7:30 pm
Academy: Thursdays 5:30 to 7:30 pm
Summer garden care is a crucial part of a healthy school garden program. Without someone tending gardens over the summer, gardens get overgrown and underwatered, making the fall harvests smaller and the overall gardening experience less pleasant for students and teachers. This is the third year that Food Connects has offered this valuable service to schools. Some schools have been able to find funds within their existing budgets to “buy-in” to this program, however not all schools have been able to find funds even though they have the need. We are grateful to Rise VT for a grant this season which allows us to expand our program and serve the communities of Guilford and Vernon.
Students across Vermont rely on school meals throughout the school year for breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snacks. But when school is out of session nearly 37,000 students lose access to these services. Luckily, programs and organizations throughout southern Vermont offer summer meals programs.
Brattleboro will host a Summer Meals Kickoff event at Retreat Farm on Friday, June 28 from noon to 4 pm. Lunch will be served from noon to 12:45 pm and will be free for kids, and adults who come with a child that day! Attendees may enjoy the farm for free until 4 pm, including the calf barn, trails and learning garden.
There are 9 Free Summer Meal sites this year, 5 of which are open to the public. You can find more details here.
Bellows Falls will host a Summer Meals Kickoff event at Bellows Falls Middle School on Monday, June 24 from 11 am to 1 pm. Kids and adults alike may eat for free that day—lunch will include homemade pizza, salad, and more! Garden Coordinator, Marylous Massucco, will be leading garden tours and giving away her boxes that day! Learn more about the event here.
A new initiative that is underway and community lead is in the Windham Central Community. They will host summer meals at the UCC church in Newfane, Vermont throughout the summer.
These events are great opportunities to learn about programs available to students throughout the entire summer. Check out this list of more summer meal sites throughout Vermont.
Six community partners come together to work on trauma-informed approaches.
On an early spring day in mid-April, leaders from six community organizations came together to explore the question of how traumatic life experiences (and even the experiences of our ancestors) shape the way we eat. Guided by gifted trainers Kendra Colburn, Deb Witkus, and Angela Berkfield from Equity Solutions, staff from the Vermont Foodbank, Groundworks Collaborative, Food Connects, Brattleboro Food Co-op, Retreat Farm, Putney Food Shelf, and Pathways Vermont gathered together in the community room at the Retreat Farm for a day of learning about the connection between trauma and eating.
The goals of the training were:
Learn about trauma and how it can impact people’s relationship to food
Practice telling our own stories related to trauma and food
Interrupt related biases and assumptions that are getting in the way of connecting with people
Apply trauma-informed practice to our life and work
At the beginning of the training, each of the trainers shared their own food stories and created space for all participants to share food stories with each other as a way to practice vulnerability. Participants were also invited to contribute to a potluck lunch and to share with each other the values and beliefs that were connected to the food that they brought. After lunch, organizations were introduced to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) 6 Core Trauma-Informed Practices, and working groups were formed to apply these practices to our work and to set goals.
The training was sponsored by the Vermont Foodbank, Groundworks Collaborative, and Food Connects—three organizations in the community that are actively engaged in conversations about becoming more trauma-informed in their approaches.
Food Connects was the lead organizer of the event, and is the recipient of a 2-year grant from the Thompson Trust to support Trauma-Informed initiatives in the Brattleboro Town Schools, with a focus on the ways that Farm to School programming can support resiliency for students and families who have experienced trauma. Food Connects’ next step will be using SAMHSA's 6 Principles to a trauma-informed approach for an internal assessment, and based on that assessment staff will determine what actions make sense as Food Connects supports the Brattleboro Town Schools in their resiliency work.
The Trauma and Food training was one piece of the work that the Vermont Foodbank is undertaking towards becoming trauma-informed. The Foodbank hosted their annual Hunger Action Conference in early May with a focus on “Healing the Past.” The keynote speaker, Dr. Ken Epstein, gave a series of workshops throughout the day on trauma. Additionally, the Foodbank’s Community Impact Team hosted a daylong team retreat in early May to continue conversations and build on the action steps that came out of the Trauma and Food training.
At Groundworks Collaborative, food shelf staff met with residents at Great River Terrace and Groundworks shelter to gain insight from folks with lived experience on the food shelf intake process, hours of operation, and the physical layout, with the goal of gaining an understanding of why people may not feel comfortable using the food shelf and ways to make the space less stigmatizing and more inviting. Additionally, staff met with current volunteers to discuss ideas on how to implement each of the six principles of trauma-informed care. As the food shelf moves into a new space in the coming months, Groundworks hopes to use this as an opportunity to incorporate a trauma-informed lens in all decision-making processes.
Equity Solutions supported the training participants in gaining confidence in their ability to interrupt long-held biases, recognize the impact that systems have on individual outcomes, and take action for equity in their communities. Trainers encouraged the group to consider their own food stories and find the courage to share those with others. According to a post-training assessment, attendees demonstrated an increased understanding of what it means to be vulnerable and share stories with others.
After the training, one of the participants stated, “This training will dramatically impact how I approach my work, especially in the coming year with taking action on incorporating lived experience and figuring out how to walk with people in relational ways.”
Another participant said that they, “Loved that facilitators did not shy away from naming things people often talk around in ‘professional’ trainings—i.e. oppression, capitalism, power structures.”
Becoming a Trauma-Informed Community will require schools, community organizations, and town leadership to work together to change systems to better meet the needs of people in our community, and this training was one piece of the rewarding, challenging, powerful work that it will take to transform our community and make it a better place for all people.
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.
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.