Mt. Abe takes new tack in the kitchen

BRISTOL — School officials at Mount Abraham Union High School are bucking the cost-saving trend at some Vermont schools to privatize food services, instead opting for the ambitious plan to build from scratch a homegrown cooperative that could, in time, expand to serve elementary schools in the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union. 
Whittling down the cost of Mount Abe’s previously quite costly program remains a priority, said school board chair Lanny Smith, but the administration’s excitement about overhauling food services inspired the board on June 8 to set aside the bids for contracts it had solicited from outside vendors and instead begin the hunt for a new food services manager.
That person will head up the new Addison Northeast Food Cooperative. The vision, explained ANeSU business manager Greg Burdick, is that schools could save money by consolidating leadership, buying power and administrative paperwork within the supervisory union.
Though Beeman Elementary School in New Haven and Robinson Elementary School in Starksboro have already committed to retaining their contracts with an outside food service vendor for next year, the other three elementary schools in the supervisory union have expressed an interest in participating — at some level — in the new cooperative.
Just how much those schools will be involved in the inaugural year remains to be seen. But even if those schools don’t participate, Burdick projects the program will save Mount Abe alone roughly $50,000 next year, cutting in half the school’s anticipated $94,000 deficit from the old food services program.
The approach is modeled on the nationally recognized cooperative that the Burlington School District uses for its food services, and that program has grown over the years to be entirely self-sustaining — requiring no taxpayer money. The goal for ANeSU and Mount Abe is the same, Smith said, though he acknowledged it may take a few years to reach that point.
“We’re looking at having a zero sum game in the future,” Smith said. “Just to come out even is going to be a wonderful thing for us.”
But changes will need to happen fast. The Mount Abe board disbanded its previous in-house food services program at the end of the year. Long time manager Nancy Curtis retired, and by disbanding the program the board laid off the previous cafeteria staff. Those employees will be at the top of the list when the school makes hires for the new cooperative, Smith said, but job descriptions might change under a new manager.
In fact, the shape of the new food cooperative remains nebulous: Many of the decisions about how the program will be run will fall to the new manager, who has yet to be hired.
“This first year is going to be groundbreaking,” Smith said.
Smith is optimistic about what the program could mean for Mount Abe. He said the administration is eager to have students weigh in on the food services program, something that could potentially boost the number of students purchasing school lunches.
Because the school has an “open campus” policy, Smith said, the food service program is hard hit by the fact that students can buy their lunch downtown.
Local control will also make locally grown food more accessible.
“People really wanted to have local produce, locally grown, that supports local agriculture,” Smith said.
Doug Davis, the director of the Burlington Schools Food Service and the parent of a Mount Abe student, commended Mount Abe for retaining local control of its food services program.
“I think that the board’s courage in allowing the district to hold on to this really does buck trends and show that nutrition really can be an integral part of our community,” Davis said. “We wouldn’t dream of subcontracting our music program, or subcontracting our art program, because those programs have such a vital role in our schools … For schools to look at (food and agricultural) programs as auxiliary and unimportant is a missed opportunity.”
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected]

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