Local food fans push for school changes

BRISTOL — Local foods advocates, educators and farmers convened on Tuesday afternoon with a full plate of work in front of them: Participants in the county-wide summit first and foremost want to see school districts in Addison County serving more food that is locally grown and produced — but that goal was the tip of the iceberg.
The “Stone Soup” summit, as the meeting at Mount Abraham Union High School was called, also called on educators and farmers to drum up creative ways for teaching students about food and farming, as well as for uniting local agriculture and curriculum in the classroom.
The summit was a collaboration among Addison County Relocalization Network (ACORN), Vermont Food Education Every Day (Vermont FEED) and local school officials. More than 100 attended the event — superintendents took their seats at the afternoon meeting alongside school board officials, lunch program directors, teachers and farmers.
The summit took its name, “Stone Soup,” from an old folk tale. In the story, a visitor arrives in a town crippled by hunger. The townspeople hoard what little food they have for fear of losing it. The visitor sets about making “stone soup,” adding a mysterious rock to a cauldron of water. Slowly, he encourages the townspeople to add their own meager stores to the pot — a head of cabbage, a handful of carrots, a bit of meat and potatoes — until eventually a hearty stew is bubbling away.
ACORN co-founder and current president Jonathan Corcoran explained the tale’s relevance.
“So what we learn from this old story is that by working together in the face of adversity, when everyone contributes what they can, whatever it may be, something wonderful happens and a greater good nourishes us all,” said Corcoran.
The summit organizers, he said, were providing the cauldron and a few stones; the participants were the “meat and potatoes.”
“Each one of us has some special ingredient to add to the soup,” he said.
Talk of parables gave way to talk of action as the evening wore on, though, and participants broke into small groups to hash out plans for four goals: reintegrating food service, education and local agriculture; reconnecting children to the land and nature; designing a school-to-farm track; and connecting food and community while reviving traditional, hands-on skills.
In many of these brainstorming sessions, educators or professionals already working to bring local foods into their schools shared experiences with those struggling to make headway.
Doug Davis, a Ferrisburgh resident and the food service director for the Burlington school district, said his district has ramped up local foods from 300 pounds in 2003 to 60,000 pounds during the last school year.
Now, 40 percent of the district’s food comes from within 250 miles of Burlington, and the district is working with the federal government in the hopes of diverting “commodity” spending typically used on U.S. Department of Agriculture food stores (like cheese) to local products.
Davis told teachers and food service workers that making the switch is hard work. Making the change to locally grown apples might seem simple at first glance, but the logistics often prove to be more complicated.
Closer to home, Kathy Alexander shared her experience at the Ferrisburgh Central School, where she’s established connections with local growers to provide food for the cafeteria. Some of those connections came about simply by pulling over when driving by a local farm, she said.
Alexander pointed out that it’s often difficult for food service program employees and farmers to operate on the same wavelength. It took her several years, for instance, to know enough about sourcing local foods to give farmers enough lead time to plan for her orders.
Early in the conversation, the topic of money cropped up: “Does your program break even?” a Mount Abe teacher asked Alexander.
Yes, Alexander replied, within $1,000 or so.
Jihad “Baba” Sater, the food service director for the Abbey Group in Addison and Rutland counties, then chimed in to point out that sourcing food locally can at times save schools money. He offered as an example a story about driving around Addison County in search of apples. At Douglas Orchards Sater discovered apples that were $12 to $13 cheaper per case than fruit Abbey had been importing from out of state.
But in another side to that conversation, Starksboro farmer Kerry Kurt chimed in to warn against pursuing cheap food above good food.
“We’re not in it to make a lot of money,” Kurt said of herself and other small farmers. “What you value you’re willing to pay for.”
The food service program in the Burlington schools also “breaks even,” according to Davis, though he said later that he objected somewhat to that standard as a measure of a food program’s success.
“Every year (being able to break even) gets more and more difficult,” Davis said. “We never ask that of the science department or the music department.”
He said that he recognizes fiscal constraints as a taxpayer, but that until communities respect and recognize child nutrition as integral to education, local foods initiatives in the schools will struggle.
In addition to putting $90,000 back into the local community through food purchases, Davis said the Burlington system is helping mold the way kids — future consumers — look at local foods, and is hopefully teaching children about respecting the hard work farmers do.
As the meeting wore on, recommendations emerged from the conversation. In the working group dedicated to reintegrating food service, education and agriculture, participants expressed a desire for some collective buying power that might help smaller schools tap into the local foods market. They also hoped for recipe and menu sharing between schools, and considered devising a list of Addison County growers who could supply schools.
Meanwhile, other participants eagerly jotted down ideas already in place at other schools. A food service employee from Vergennes Union Elementary School told her group about setting up a work station where students could peel potatoes and participate in food preparation during breakfast, before classes began. Not only did it help cut down on processing time for food service employees, she said, but the kids were more likely to eat food they’d helped prepare.
In Ferrisburgh, Alexander said, she recruits volunteer parents to come in during particularly busy times of year to help preserve and freeze food, and now her freezers are stocked with food like tomato sauce and local berries.
Alexander urged other participants at the conference to think about the bigger picture as they consider the role of local foods in their own schools.
“It’s not good enough to do a local foods day once in a while,” she said. “That’s not what we’re talking about.”
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].

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