Classroom, Cafeteria, Community

Katherine Gillespie, Farm to school program manager for Post Oil Solutions, plants lettuce seedlings with Brattleboro area middle school students in  their new school garden.
Katherine Gillespie, Farm to school program manager for Post Oil Solutions, plants lettuce seedlings with Brattleboro area middle school students in their new school garden.

Written By

Richard Berkfield

Written on

September 01 , 2011

From the First Lady to the USDA and Governor Peter Shumlin to celebrity chef Jaime Oliver, there is a growing national interest in improving the health and nutrition of our schoolchildren. Vermont will be among the last states to appear on Oliver’s Food Revolution, a television program meant to save America’s health by helping kids and adults change the way they eat, but perhaps that’s because our state has been leading the way by developing Farm to School (FTS) programming for more than a decade.

There is much to be proud of: it is estimated that more than 60 percent of Vermont’s schools have initiated some kind of FTS program, and Vermont will host the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in 2012. Still, we have a lot of work to do before we have well-fed, food-wise graduates and communities. Most people think FTS is simply about increasing the amount of local food in school cafeterias, but encouraging kids to make healthy choices also requires curriculum connections, taste tests, farm field trips, school gardens, and cooking.

Post Oil Solutions, a small nonprofit in the Brattleboro area, has responded to our communities’ demand for local food in schools by launching theWindham County Farm to School Program, which aims to improve student nutrition, health, and academic performance at more county schools while supporting the development of a strong community-based food system. The keys to our success so far have been partnerships, collaboration, coordination, organizing, and research. It takes a village to develop sustainable and comprehensive FTS programs, so it has to be easy and fun to get busy people to plug in. And it is fun!

A Statewide Effort

Vermont Food Education Every Day (FEED), a collaborative project of three nonprofits—Food Works, Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) and Shelburne Farms—has been supporting schools in their quest to develop FTS programs for more than 10 years. FEED’s director, Abbie Nelson, notes that “Farm to School programs are not only spreading from school to school but are growing deep roots in schools, becoming part of the educational experience in school communities.”

Often a result of Vermont FEED’s support, a variety of organizations have been springing up at the local level to provide more on-the-ground support. For example, the Burlington School Food Project is Vermont’s largest Farm to School program, encompassing the entire Burlington School District, and, due to its success in dramatically increasing the amount of local food in the cafeteria, was highlighted in a recently released study by the USDA. Meanwhile, Green Mountain Farm to School, Upper Valley Farm to School, and others are developing their own unique programs in more rural areas, building a strong statewide network.

The Brattleboro FTS Program, among the first to receive an FTS grant through the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, has grown to such an extent that it has attracted attention and support from principals in the area and from the superintendent, Ron Stahley. He says the Farm to School program has complemented the district’s academic goals “by promoting healthy eating habits; by providing practical, real world learning experiences related to the food economy and the broader community; by encouraging a stronger connection to our local farms and food producers that support our local economy; and by promoting student leadership opportunities in the community.” Most exciting to us is that local administrators and school board members have seen these benefits to our students and have dedicated local funding to support a sustainable district-wide program. We are also getting support from the other supervisory unions in our county.

Our approach—based on Vermont FEED’s three Cs, which links FTS efforts in the classroom, cafeteria, and community—is focused on developing comprehensive and sustainable programs, thus we are not usually found in the classroom providing direct service. We bring people together, facilitate meetings, provide professional development training, and work to support school communities however we can. School counselor Emily Bullock from Newbrook Elementary School says, “The outside support has been so important for us in developing our program. We are all so busy but see the great benefits of FTS and want to do more. Having someone with the vision, skills, and commitment to keep us on track and focused has made all the difference.”

For the greatest success and impact, we focus our efforts on initiatives that span cafeterias, classrooms, and community. For example, we are developing a program called Veggie of the Month that highlights one seasonal locally grown vegetable by making it available in school cafeterias as much as possible. We make curriculum materials available for each Veggie of the Month so that teachers can easily highlight and integrate lessons into their classrooms. And we bring in the community by partnering with UVM Extension, school supervisory unions, the Vermont Foodbank, food service companies, the Brattleboro Food Co-op, and more. The Abbey Group and Café Services, two food service companies in our area, share our enthusiasm and are committed to promoting Veggie of the Month. The Windham Farm and Food Network (WFFN), an innovative, wholesale delivery system, is working with our local farmers to make sure Veggies of the Month will be available for the schools.

Teaching the Teachers

Our FTS programs also support teachers and school staff with resources and professional development opportunities that enable them to incorporate school gardens, nutrition lessons, farm field trips, monthly taste tests, and more into their classroom curriculum. One example of this was a Food Studies Course we organized this past spring with FEED. Seventeen teachers, school nurses, and other educators from six different Windham County schools participated in the 15-hour course that provided the opportunity to explore and expand their personal and professional knowledge and experience related to Farm to School education while building and strengthening community connections. Angela Walton, the 3/4 multiage teacher at Putney Central School, recently completed the course and had these words to share: “The very best part was the cooking each week—what a way to make it ‘real’ for all of us! I’ve used many of the strategies, recipes, and activities that I learned about in this class. It was by far the best professional development I’ve been involved with in a long while!”

Given our struggling economy, federal spending cuts, and tight school budgets, developing a sustainable funding stream for FTS programs can be challenging. In order to fully fund the program, we have developed a fee-for-service approach that relies on member enrollment payments from participating schools and their food service companies, as well as community fundraisers. Given the fact that FTS not only educates our next generation but is keeping real money in our local economy now, we are optimistic that community members, taxpayers, and school boards will continue to support this program.

While FTS across the state celebrates many successes, there is one barrier that we need to begin addressing, and that is the challenge of building community across the socially constructed barriers of class and race. The choice to eat healthy and locally is not a choice we all share. In fact, not everybody even agrees on what healthy is, as becomes clear in this story from a teacher: 
A student of mine asked me what we would be having for snack that day. I told him that one of the moms had made muffins for us.  He said “Treats again?! Oh.” We don’t have treats often, but we had cookies for a birthday the day before. He sounded disappointed so I asked, “Is that a good or a bad ‘Oh’?” He said “Bad! I want to be healthy!” He went on to tell me that he had been at his dad’s house the weekend before, and “I wanted water to drink, but my dad said ‘We drink soda here.’ I told them soda’s bad for you, and I just like to drink water or milk, and they said, ‘Around here, soda’s not bad for you.’ But I know soda’s bad for me, and I just wanted water, but they made me drink soda.”

We work hard to improve FTS programs in our schools but we need to work equally hard to be relevant to everyone in our communities and to reach out and understand the issues that all our community members deal with on a daily basis. Many of us involved in the local food movement, and FTS in particular, have to challenge ourselves to look beyond our middle-class perspectives to have a greater impact on the health and future of our communities.

Through Farm to School activities, we aim to see more parents and relatives become involved in their school communities both as a place to gather and as a place to learn and grow. We encourage all community members to get involved with our monthly taste tests, school gardens, farm visits, or family events at their schools. Most important, we need volunteers to support teachers in providing farm and food education, as well as to support food service to meet the demands of providing low-cost, kid-friendly meals using locally produced food. We are very appreciative of the support we have received from our wonderful volunteers and encourage more folks to get involved. There are a myriad of ways to participate regardless of your skills or time.

Photo by Richard Berkfield

The Kids Localvore Challenge is a tangible activity that anyone can adapt for their local school. Students take part in learning activities and experiences that highlight the value of food grown and raised in Vermont and nearby states. Participation in the challenge is optional, but we always hope that many students—with the support of their families—take part. Participants set their own goals, keep track of what local foods they eat, and turn their contracts in to their schools at the end to be entered in a drawing for prizes. We have developed some documents to help people get started; visit our websitebrattf2s.wordpress.com/2010-kids-localvore-challenge/ to learn more. This year, we have chosen the week of October 10 for the Challenge, but a Challenge can be organized for any week that works best for a school community.

Also consider joining the Vermont Farm to School Network, which provides statewide leadership, coordination, and advocacy to advance new and existing Farm to School efforts in Vermont classrooms, cafeterias, and communities. The Vermont Farm to School Network is open to all Farm to School advocates, practitioners, and programs across the state. Join the listservevtfeed.org/farmtoschoolnetwork.

About the Author

Richard Berkfield

Richard Berkfield

Richard Berkfield is the executive director of Post Oil Solutions and lives in Williamsville. He hopes to see comprehensive and sustainable FTS programs in place by the time his 2-year-old reaches public school age.

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