Farm to School

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!

Cafeterias Unknown: Dummerston Elementary School

February 8, 2019 - Dummerston Elementary School

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Pizza day, oh blessed pizza day! A few weeks back, I got to spend my Friday afternoon lunchtime with a gaggle of first graders at Dummerston Elementary School. What began as a table of 2 quickly turned into a table of 12—those kids sure were eager to tell me stories about their day (and their whole lives)! The majority of my table had school lunch, with a few bringing lunches from home.

From the lunch line, I went with a big slice of pepperoni pizza, a maple-balsamic spinach salad with strawberries, sliced cukes, baby carrots, canned pears and a carton of 2% milk. Oh! And one scrumptious local apple from Green Mountain Orchards in Putney.

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In Dummerston, the kitchen is run by a staff of two—Tracey & Lori of Cafe Services. They cook for about 80 students each day. This year, they are working to decrease waste by switching from plastic to reusable lunch containers. Additionally, they are hoping to eliminate a variety of unhealthy ingredients, increase local purchasing and provide lower sugar content foods whenever possible.

Lunch was super fun. We talked about what it would be like to milk a cow. We talked about what a baked brie and jam birthday cake would taste like. And we took some photos with our eyes closed (just to see what it would look like). Overall, a Friday afternoon well spent.

Eating lunch (or any meal!) with others is always a pleasure—I encourage you to share a meal with friends or colleagues this week!

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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!

Cafeterias Unknown

One gal’s journey into the world of school lunch.

When my Food Connects team posed the question, “what’s one big goal you have for 2019?” I paused. What would I set out to achieve in this new year? Overhaul school meal regulatory systems? Build more school gardens? Combat food insecurity by campaigning for school meal participation? Well, yes, I wanted to do ALL of those things, but another idea came bubbling to the surface. I would eat school lunch at all of the 25+ schools that we support in Southern Vermont.

I spend my days thinking about, talking about, and (sometimes) dreaming about school lunch! But I realized I haven’t actually enjoyed a school lunch for quite some time—since high school, in fact! Back in those days, I ate school lunch every day. My favorites included the “pizza boat,” canned peaches and, of course, strawberry milk. Well, things have changed a bit since then. School cafeterias in and around Brattleboro and Bellows Falls offer all sorts of delicious treats these days. Think corn chowder with homemade ciabatta rolls or roasted root vegetable pot pie or Grafton cheddar mac & cheese. Can you say YUMMO?! My mouth is already watering.

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And so my adventure begins. As I’m sure many of you have been dying to know how school lunch has evolved over the past 10 or so years, I will do my best to document this journey. Stay tuned for anecdotes, photos and plenty of vegetable-related puns.

Bon appetit!

-Kate

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!