Schools get a jolt of healthy energy

BRISTOL — Students at three Addison Northeast Supervisory Union schools have kissed desserts, processed foods and daily hamburgers goodbye because the ANeSU’s new Food Service Cooperative isn’t having any of it.
When Kathy Alexander, president of the Vermont School Nutrition Association, grabbed the cooperative’s reigns last summer, the food staff put down their box cutters and picked up their paring knives, changed recipes to include healthier ingredients, and instituted a tighter fiscal monitoring system.
After 10 years of celebrated success at Ferrisburgh Central School, Alexander took up the new post at ANeSU — managing the Food Service Cooperative, which includes Mount Abraham Union High School, Monkton Central School and Bristol Elementary School.
For at least some of the students, the outcome has been positive.
“The lunch here got so much better, and there’s way more variety,” Mount Abe 10th-grader Jessie Martin said.
The goals of the cooperative are:
1.  To maintain fiscal responsibility and financial sustainability in the schools’ food service programs.
2.  To increase student access to healthy, highly nutritious meals that promote their ability to learn.
3.  To expand students’ food knowledge by integrating the community into the food service program.
“What you need to understand is that a school food service is driven by participation,” said Alexander. “As we look at our budgets, there are a few things that we have to look at, but the very first one, the most important one is participation … If kids aren’t participating, we’re really not doing our job.”
According to Alexander’s numbers, participation has increased in all three of her programs. Since last school year, the number of kids getting school lunches at Bristol Elementary has risen from 67 percent to 71 percent, at Monkton Central from 57 percent to 60.6 percent, and at Mount Abe from 45 percent to 57 percent.
Alexander is proud of the creation of a new standardized method for monitoring the cooperative’s finances.
“Instead of having three programs with three different managers and their three very different styles and systems, we now only have one manager with one system — me,” she said.
“I’ve worked really hard over the last nine months to put everyone on the same page so that food managers have a standard way that they account for their funds; the business office’s numbers and my records align; and I have a system for figuring out costs, which did not exist before, to the extent that I can do it now with the rest of the programs,” said Alexander.
Even with these financial management changes, the cooperative’s spending will not necessarily fall, though Alexander hoped to keep a check on the rate of increase.
The major force preventing a slimmer food budget is the rising price of food. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Price Index, the price of food has risen steadily since June 2010.
“Participation this year is set to go up, so we should expect increased revenue,” said Alexander. “But, the price of food will go up as well … It’s just reality, we have to account for that. I can’t cut the food budget because now food prices are going up … we will make adjustments and won’t raise the budget a huge deal.”
In addition to higher food costs, the cooperative also wants to provide students with more nutrient-rich ingredients. Higher-quality ingredients cost more, Alexander noted.
In the space that exists between federal subsidies and meal costs there lurks a great inefficiency.
“Most food service programs across the country are losing money on every single meal, and, at the same time, we’re trying to figure out how to provide more meals to more kids,” Alexander said.
The average price for a lunchtime meal at Mount Abe is $3 and the cost is $3.35. The school receives $2.72 in federal subsidies for each free meal it administers, $2.32 for every reduced priced meal (free and reduced priced meals are for qualifying students below the poverty line), and 26 cents for meals paid at the regular charge.
That means that for every free and reduced price meal that the program administers, it loses 63 cents (reduced priced students pay 40 cents), and for every meal that it sells, it loses 9 cents.
To fill this void grants, government programs and taxpayers dollars come into play.
“Does the food service program have to be subsidized by taxpayers’ dollars?” asks Alexander. “I say yes it does. Why shouldn’t it be? If it is in fact contributing to children’s education, then it’s a wonderful thing for taxpayers to actually feel good about paying for. But, to really honor that, I first needed to figure out a way for this cooperative to really address food education.”
So, Alexander considered the issue. Then, she took the money that was set aside for an administrative assistant and hired a healthy food educator instead.
Kristen Andrews of Blue Meadow Farm in Lincoln was hired to play the role of healthy food educator for the food cooperative. She works 10 hours a week for the cooperative in the classroom, conducting lessons and taste tests; in cafeterias, working on recipe development and student cooking activities; and in the community, taking kids out on farm field trips and working on farm-to-school activities.
Student involvement doesn’t stop there. Under the guidance of volunteer gardener Walter O’Donoghue of Bridport, Mount Abe students have expanded their garden from 700 square feet in 2009 to 3,000 square feet this year.
The school brought in 600 pounds of produce from the garden last year, and this year it hopes for even more.
“Most of our crops are aimed at coming up in the spring and fall to get more fresh food into the cafeteria,” said O’Donoghue. “Anything that we harvest during the summer, we’ll give to food banks and shelters and directly to hungry families.”
Part of Alexander’s grand plan for food education is to better incorporate local foods into the program. According to her numbers, 35 percent of the cooperative’s produce comes from local farms such as Champlain Orchards, Last Resort Farm, Rockville Market Farm and Norris Berry Farm. The program buys grains from Gleason Grains, cheese from Cabot, and pizzas from American Flatbread. If milk is lumped together with food, then local foods account for 42 percent of all foods purchased.
Alexander also hopes that students will learn about nutrition by feeling the effects of healthy foods. The cooperative buys almost solely raw ingredients and processes food itself.
“Before I even revamped my office and settled in, I went and bought (food processors) … the biggest ones you can buy for home use, not industrial … It was the first thing we did,” said Alexander.
Cooking from raw products is central to Alexander’s reform of the ANeSU food system.
“We use less fat and sugar … at first it was really difficult to prepare meals from this many raw ingredients, but now I love it,” said chef Mari Bolduc, who is in her 12th year working at the Mount Abe cafeteria. “More teachers are coming down, and Kathy’s done a wonderful job of teaching everyone about nutrition.”
A salad bar is no longer a lunch option at Mount Abe, but rather a part of every lunch including items such as hummus, bean salad and tabouli.
“We’ve changed the recipes so that every recipe that uses flour incorporates a minimum of 51 percent whole-wheat flour,” said Alexander.
For some, the most shocking change comes at the end of meals.
“We don’t make dessert anymore. That’s gone. No more dessert … not that I’m against dessert,” said Alexander. She nevertheless did admit that they’ve made chocolate beet cake and black bean brownies.
Last week, Alexander administered a 30-question survey to all Mount Abe students to get feedback about kids’ likes and dislikes. Interns from the University of Vermont will help her analyze the data. 
“The huge change is Kathy Alexander,” said O’Donoghue. “She’s the best thing to hit the school in years.”
But, the real judges of the tireless efforts of Alexander and her staff are the students.
“I think the food’s a lot better … a lot healthier,” said 10th-grade student Kevin Sword. “There’s a lot more variety now.”
Reporter Andrew Stein can be reached at [email protected]

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