ANeSU looks to build healthy food programs

MIDDLEBURY — In a cafeteria hung with student drawings of kiwis, parsnips and apples at Mount Abraham Union High School, school administrators, cooks, parents and teachers last week gathered to imagine the future of the Bristol-area schools’ foodservice cooperative.
Kathy Alexander, who runs the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union cooperative, said she hopes to develop a strategy that will build the farm-to-school momentum within the five schools of the cooperative, spreading the emphasis on fresh, healthy, local food from the classrooms to the cafeteria to the community.
“We’re changing the food culture in school,” she said. “Kids spend most of their day in school, and we feed them two meals (a day). It’s unbelievably important that we get it right.”
Abbie Nelson of Vermont Food Education Every Day, known as VT FEED, was there to help the schools and the cooperative as a whole “build a secure and practical three-year plan” for expanding distribution of healthy foods and farm-to-school education programs.
The more than 20 people gathered in the room last Tuesday introduced themselves with one word that they felt best described the farm-to-school program: “healthy,” “necessary,” “sustainable,” “challenging” and “necessary.” They represented five schools in the district — Lincoln, the only district school not in the cooperative, was represented, but nobody from Monkton attended.
Alice Hines, a former foodservice employee at Bristol Elementary School, questioned the price of the ANeSU food cooperative to taxpayers.
“I’m here as a taxpayer,” she said. “I like the idea of farm-to-school, but I’m just wondering how this is working out. To me, it seems like we are spending more than we were before.”
“Cost is complicated,” said Nelson. “I urge you to think of cost beyond dollars.”
“It costs more or it doesn’t cost more,” said Hines.
Alexander explained that when estimating the cost of a foodservice program integrated with the curriculum and with the community, it’s difficult to put a dollar value on the less tangible gains, like student health and knowledge of nutrition and agriculture.
Porter Knight, a Bristol Elementary and Mount Abe parent, said it seemed that one of the challenges for the schools going forward would be how to explain the costs and the larger concepts of the food program.
Groups from each school broke out to evaluate the role of farm-to-school efforts in their cafeterias, classrooms and community, and to highlight areas where food, agriculture and nutrition could be built up.
At Mount Abe, food is coming into greater focus at the curricular level: science teacher Gabe Hamilton described his Biology of Food course, where the class is growing spinach, kale and lettuce hydroponically in the classroom.
“But there’s definitely room for more,” said Hamilton.
Mount Abe cooks also discussed a struggle to process and store more local produce throughout the year. Since that requires a great deal of labor, freezer space and equipment when those foods are in season, schools are limited in how much seasonal produce they can store.
Knight said it’s important for schools with farm-to-school programs not only to tell people in the community the story of the food and agriculture efforts they are working on, but also to explain the value of these programs within the educational context.
Bristol Elementary teachers, staff and parents discussed integrating food more into the curriculum.
Principal Catrina DiNapoli said some classes are incorporating food into units of study like history, and students will be learning more about nutrition in health classes.
“Health ed is expanding as we speak,” said DiNapoli.
In other activities, students help out in the garden and learn to cook, and a USDA Fresh Fruits and Vegetables grant is providing snack foods for elementary schools in the district for the year.
“They grow, they harvest, they cook, they eat,” said Bertha Allen, a cook at the school.
But they agreed that there needed to be a more coordinated effort to discuss food and agriculture across the grades.
Emily Betz, one of the head cooks at Robinson Elementary, said there’s no established farm-to-school initiative at the Starksboro school, though local foods are deeply integrated into the foodservice. She said there’s a great deal of support for farm-to-school projects from the community, though, and if the school created a farm-to-school committee, she expects there would be many willing to volunteer.
“Once we put it out there that we need this, we’ll get support,” she said.
Betz, in her first year at Robinson, said she plans to bring representatives from farms to come to the school when their products are being served, so that the students know where the food is coming from.
Therese Fafard, a New Haven parent, said the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables grant has helped introduce students to new produce.
“At first, there was always something that went back into the bowl,” she said, “but now they come back empty.”
But, she said, it’s not just about teaching the students to eat new things.
“Part of it is the education of the educators — having them incorporate it into the curriculum, rather than seeing it as a separate thing,” she said.
And Christa Gowen, the head of the Beeman kitchen, said she knows there are many parents who are excited about creating farm-to-school connections outside of the cafeteria, and Fafard said that members of the Beeman Friends parent group would be eager to hear about the program.
The group also highlighted the need for a farm-to-school committee and for more effective purchasing and use of local products year round.
Laura Collaro, who runs the Lincoln school dining program, said she hopes to find a tool that will allow her to better evaluate and streamline costs of her dining program, and she highlighted the need for a farm-to-school coordinator position that could push curriculum and activities out across the school, as well as a farm-to-school committee.
Once the entire assembly reformed, the groups from each school found they had all highlighted a common goal: to form a committee with each school that would be able to guide and facilitate farm-to-school efforts at the school and to communicate and publicize those efforts.
And the group also decided to work toward a district-wide farm-to-school committee, where the separate groups will be able to meet and discuss their efforts and struggles.
Nelson said the meeting offered a rare opportunity to collaborate and to form long-term goals together.
“This is pretty special, to have all these schools together like this,” said Nelson.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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