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Group eyes more local foods in schools

MIDDLEBURY — Some 75 administrators, teachers, foodservice workers and students gathered at Middlebury Union High School on April 5 to discuss the burgeoning movement that is bringing local foods into schools across the county.
The second annual Stone Soup Summit, put on by the Addison County Relocalization Network (ACORN), aimed to spread information, ideas and experiences on all angles of the farm-to-school effort — from composting to funding to incorporating local food education into the curriculum.
In his introduction to the event, Jonathan Corcoran, president of ACORN, said Vermont is widely considered to be on the forefront of the national farm to school movement. This, he said, is one of the reasons that the national Farm to School Network recently announced that its 2012 conference will be held in Vermont.
This year’s conference spotlighted a number of ongoing initiatives in schools across the county, and encouraged people to speak about progress, limitations and challenges with others in their school district.
The event’s agenda arose from the results of an online survey that ACORN conducted this winter, which gathered information on what schools are already doing and on the most pressing areas of need for administrators.
The survey found that 15 of the 20 Addison County schools are sourcing some of their ingredients locally, and that 15 schools have  gardens.
But the survey also focused in on what schools need to continue the push for farm to school initiatives. Respondents to the survey cited the need for new and sustainable funding options, expanding educational programming on food and nutrition, encouraging students to eat healthy foods, and connecting with area farmers.
Those needs were addressed in seven workgroups, which focused on composting, building a farm to school coalition, bringing farm to school into elementary and high school curricula, financing farm to school projects, school gardening and buying locally for the cafeteria.
BUYING LOCALLY
Heading up the “Buying Locally for the Cafeteria” workgroup were Annie Harlow, formerly of Black River Produce; Lynne Rapaport, nutrition liaison for the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union; Susan Pratt, foodservice director at Bingham Memorial School in Cornwall; and Laura Collaro, food services manager at Lincoln Community School.
Rapaport is in her first year working to get more fresh, local food to the 1,200 students in ANwSU schools, and said that one of her largest roles has been working with the Abbey Group, which cooks for Vergennes Union High School.
She said the key to getting local foods into schools year round is to think beyond seasonal produce — ANwSU schools, she said, use local eggs, flours, cheese, milk, honey, maple syrup, wheat berries and black beans.
She also encourages foodservice providers in her schools to make gradual changes in buying habits, so that instead of making a jump to as much local food as possible right away, they can foster relationships with one to two local producers each year. Pre-buy agreements are especially helpful, as they guarantee a steady purchasing account to the farmers and a steady produce supply to the school.
BUILDING SUPPORT
Especially important, all the speakers agreed, is creating a coalition of committed people within the school, from parents to teachers to administrators. With widespread support, foodservice workers are more free to find local purchasing strategies that work.
“I got hired with an overwhelming amount of support,” said Collaro. “That makes it a lot easier to move forward.”
Collaro spoke about the unusual system she has developed in her five years at Lincoln Community School. She gets honey at a good price from Champlain Valley Apiaries in Middlebury, but she said there aren’t always ways to incorporate honey into the meals. Instead, the school sells half of the honey to the community each year at a higher price, making the honey practically free. Collaro said she takes a similar strategy with the whole beef animal that the school buys every year.
“It took me a long time to figure out I’m running a business,” she said. “I like thinking about it as revenue building, not cost-cutting.”
The speakers also discussed the struggle to get around USDA commodities, which schools receive at highly discounted prices but which, all agreed, are not always high quality or particularly healthy.
“You can mix commodities in (with local food,)” said Pratt, who has been heading up the school’s food program for two years. “I leave my menus open-ended, so whatever fresh produce comes in I can use.”
“You can’t not use commodities,” said Collaro.
And sustaining the programs financially was a central issue to the conversation, since there isn’t enough money available so that each school can get a local foods grant each year.
“We’re all in competition for the same grant money,” said Harlow.
A self-sustaining source of funding is ideal, she said — and looking for creative fund-raising opportunities closer to home can be more reliable in the long term.
“Sometimes you can gain a strong footing by a grassroots effort. A slow building-up,” said Harlow.
DISTRICT DISCUSSION
After a dinner that included local flour, beans, root vegetables, fruits and cheeses, the participants broke out into groups by their supervisory union to discuss their specific goals and needs.
Lisa Sprague, of Vergennes Union Elementary School, said that the movement is continuing strong in her school, especially on the gardening and educational ends.
“Mentally, we’ve taken a big step to the point where we’re self-sustaining,” she said.
But she agreed with Rapaport that the schools in the district needed to work more toward actually incorporating local goods into school food.
James McSweeney, of the Highfields Center for Composting in Hardwick, spoke about his work with Ferrisburgh Central School to develop a composting system.
“We’re feeling great about Ferrisburgh’s success at composting,” he said.
Next, he said he is looking to The Willowell Foundation to create a composting program for the Walden Project, which could also take compost from Vergennes Union High School.
 The Addison Central Supervisory Union discussed the creation of a district-wide composting program, since the smaller schools would have difficulty setting aside staff time and resources to keep their own composting system going.
And Mary Gill, school nurse at Mary Hogan Elementary School, began taking names to form a district-wide steering committee that could allow the group to continue the conversation on farm to school efforts and inter-school collaboration throughout the year.
A LARGE SCHOOL GARDEN?
The Addison Northeast Supervisory Union discussed the effort to balance buying from farmers and using produce from a school garden, and whether it is sustainable for a school to dedicate time and resources to a large garden.
“We want to have conversations around growing our own food, but we don’t want to be competition for local farmers,” said Barbara Yerrick, a teacher at Monkton Central School.
Eugenie Doyle, of Last Resort Farm in Monkton, said that schools should not look to farmers for donations of produce or time, but rather as resources.
“If you’re going to grow a crop, consult with a farmer,” she said.
And Kathy Alexander, the director of the ANeSU foodservice cooperative, said the summit offered opportunities to use what has been done in the county as a resource and as inspiration.
“There is an opportunity to do this as a group,” she said. “I feel like we’re so close to showing everybody that we can do it, and that foodservice is part of our kids’ education.”
 
‘Chick to Plate’ project can offer learning experience
 
MIDDLEBURY — Before groups at the April 5 Stone Soup Summit at Middlebury Union High School split up to speak about specific initiatives, Lynn Coale, director of the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center, spoke to the group about his upcoming “Chick to Plate” project.
“I’m a chicken farmer by trade. For recreation, I’m the director of a wonderful group of people called the Hannaford Career Center,” said Coale.
His chicken farming initiative attempts to bridge those two occupations, and to close a loop that is left open by Vermont’s 4-H Embryology program. The program each year distributes hundreds of eggs and incubators to classrooms across the state for educational purposes. Coale said the hatched chicks come out of the program with nowhere to go.
That, he said, will change for some chickens this year. Students at the career center will mentor fifth-graders at Mary Hogan Elementary School as they care for the eggs in their incubators.
The career center construction class will build hoop houses, which will house the free-range chickens as they grow to broiler size. After the summer has started, participants in the town’s MIDD Summer camp program will continue to raise the chickens.
Once they are fully grown, they will be butchered and processed, and half will be sold using a business plan that the Hannaford agribusiness program will develop this spring. The rest will go to the campers, so they can enjoy the fruits of their labors.
Coale said that the program is fully funded at this point, and that he hopes the sale of the chickens this summer will create additional income that will allow the program to operate in years to come.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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