Farm to School

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!

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!

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

Green Street Herbs in a Main Street Restaurant

Green Street School and Yalla VT began an exciting partnership last fall. Thanks to the initiative of Tara Gordon, Green Street School’s new garden coordinator, students in kindergarten, first, and fourth grade are growing fresh cilantro for this locally owned Mediterranean restaurant on Main Street in Brattleboro. The herbs are grown in three indoor classroom grow stands. So far the students have successfully grown, harvested, and supplied Yalla with one flavorful crop of cilantro which Yalla traded for some of their fresh pita bread and cilantro spread that the kids enjoyed as a yummy in school snack.

This project has provided many learning opportunities so far for Tara and her students.  They began by seeding both parsley and cilantro, which make a great duo because they are close relatives—they are part of the same plant family—with some similar overlapping properties, and both are native to the middle east. To launch the project, Tara brought in fresh cilantro, parsley leaves, and cilantro seeds for students to taste test. Just realizing that both the leaves (cilantro) and seeds (cumin) of the same plant have different names was exciting! The classes learned health benefits and interesting plant properties of these herbs, plant morphology and life cycle, germination and growth requirements, and how Yalla may be using them in their menus. The kids loved knowing that they were growing herbs for a real live restaurant! Unfortunately the parsley did not germinate, which was a learning experience in itself, so they decided to focus on growing cilantro.

The second full batch of cilantro is now underway—it germinated and sprouted over February vacation. The students are refining their growing techniques, and this time around, rather than using the 6 cell packs, they decided to plant in larger rectangular plastic flats which will not dry out as quickly. Tara says, “with time and experimentation we would like to increase our growing capacity with alternating seeding for continuous harvesting while speeding up growth. Yalla would certainly like to buy from us, which could work out well once our productivity increases.”

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This project encourages students to place value in nurturing plants while they learn ways to make the project more sustainable by developing plant cultivation skills, as well as business and production skills. It really is a community enrichment program where Green Street students are learning how to grow a mutually beneficial relationship with a local business. Yalla’s owner Zohar Arama says, “We’re investing in a new generation at Green Street School and it’s fun to work with them! We’re thrilled to keep this collaboration going with the community.”


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!

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!