Farm to School

Working with Food & Trauma

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.  

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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.

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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.

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.

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!