Getting youngsters to eat, think local

ADDISON COUNTY — In the kitchen at Monkton Central School last Thursday, Anne Coolidge and Deb Preston set out pans of Champlain Orchards applesauce cake to cool on the counter, accompanied by the sounds of dodge ball from the gym next door.
Coolidge and Preston, co-managers in the Monkton kitchen, this year have joined the effort to bring local foods into schools — as part of the new foodservice co-op within the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union (ANeSU), and as part of a growing countywide movement to celebrate Vermont’s agricultural bounty in the classroom.
While lunch was assembled, the second-graders in Barbara Yerrick’s classroom just down the hall feasted on a combination of apples and honey from Boyers Orchard in Monkton, and then the same apples combined with cheese from New Haven’s Orb Weaver Farm. Afterward, the kids voted on whether or not they liked each combination.
The vote came out strongly in favor of both options, and the more adventurous students experimented by combining all three. Shawna Sherwin said that this tasting was just the first step in bringing more local foods into the school.
“One of the big things is trying to get the kids to try new food, and to understand where their food comes from,” she said.
Sherwin, the parent of a Monkton fifth-grader, and the other members of a farm-to-school group, which was formed last year by parents and teachers at Monkton Central, are hoping to push the boundaries of what the students will eat, using classroom tastings where they can sample new foods in a less chaotic environment than the cafeteria.
Kathy Alexander, coordinator of the new food service co-op that serves Mt. Abraham Union High School and the elementary schools in Bristol and Monkton, was on hand to observe the tasting and to visit the school’s kitchen. Alexander is not new to encouraging youngsters to eat local foods that are new to them. She came to ANeSU from Ferrisburgh Central School, where she had been foodservice manager for 10 years.
“If a picky kindergartener would come in in Ferrisburgh, I would say to myself, ‘OK. By sixth grade, I’m going to have this kid eating.’ But it takes all that time,” Alexander said.
She said that the major focus of the new foodservice co-op is bringing a greater awareness of food into the schools.
“It’s about farms, it’s about local purchasing, but it’s more about making our food programs more a part of what the kids are learning every day,” she said. “The ultimate goal for me is that the culture changes around food.”
Farm-to-school programs are springing up all over the county, a trend that Jonathan Corcoran, president of the Addison County Relocalization Network (ACORN) says is encouraging.
“(Local food) is gaining a greater visibility in the school community,” said Corcoran.
ACORN sponsored the Stone Soup conference at Mount Abe last year, where area foodservice providers, school administrators, members of the community and growers came together to discuss ways to bring local foods into schools. That conference, said Corcoran, helped to start a dialog where schools could discuss strategies and resources.
And ACORN teamed up with the Willowell Foundation, an environmental education foundation in Monkton, to sponsor an AmeriCorps volunteer. Hannah Mueller will be working for part of the time to organize a directory of local farms and resources for area schools, and on bringing nutrition and health education into the schools. Her focus will be on Mount Abe, Vergennes Union High School, and on the Bristol and Monkton elementary schools.
Otter Valley Union High School board member Ellen Kurrelmeyer said that her board has begun looking for ways to incorporate locally produced foods into the district’s school food programs.
Peter Reynolds, co-principal at VUHS, said his school is looking to hire a farm-to-school coordinator who will work two days a week to bring local foods into the schools.
“We’re interested in farm-to-school as a matter of economics, ethics, and the fact that this is an agricultural community,” said Reynolds.
The school this year began to get its meals through Café Services, a New Hampshire-based company that caters institutional meals. The company has its own farm-to-school coordinator to organize the effort at a higher level, but it will also fund the coordinator position at VUHS.
Reynolds said that this came as a relief to the school, since hiring a coordinator from the budget simply would not be feasible.
For the locally operated programs, the push for more local food means more labor-intensive meal preparation and, sometimes, more expensive produce.
“I look at my menu over the week and do this balancing act — I can have local corn, so something else will be less expensive,” said Alexander. “We might serve a grilled cheese sandwich with local corn and salad, so the protein and bread are cheaper on that day. Another time we’ll make gorgeous rolls using local flour from Gleason’s Grains, then use apples because they’re not that expensive.”
Alexander added that that produce isn’t actually as expensive as one might think.
“Processed food is not cheap,” she said. “Where you’re spending the money (for local food) is on the labor and a lot of planning.”
Within the new ANeSU co-op, individual schools have been finding creative ways to offset the extra time added with more local produce. On a recent day at Bristol Elementary, the sixth-graders shucked corn for the more-than-200 students eating that day.
Farm-to-school legislation enacted in 2006 established a number of statewide grant programs that fund the enhancement of local programs, including funding for planning, training and equipment.
Rep. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, said that often buying and using the equipment to process local foods is a major difficulty for school kitchens that are accustomed to simply heating up food that’s already cooked.
“A lot of schools don’t have knives in their kitchens,” he explained. “If you’re going to start adding 50 pounds of carrots to your menus, you need that.”
Local schools like Monkton Central are benefiting from this program — this year, they got their first commercial food processor, which has allowed Coolidge and Preston to do a lot more with the produce they get through the new food co-op.
Bray cited the work Alexander did while at Ferrisburgh as an example of where Vermont’s educational food systems should be moving.
“Since we feed 92,000 kids a day in school (in Vermont), we have an ethical obligation to feed them well and teach them well when it comes to nutrition,” he said.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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