Healthy menu nets national kudos for Ferrisburgh school

FERRISBURGH — One day earlier this month, the pungent smell of basil filled the Ferrisburgh Central School’s front hallway.
On other days, students carried into the building baskets of onions, potatoes, or any of a number of other vegetables from the school’s garden, almost all of which are offered to and then eaten by the same kids who have helped plant and pick them.
“Each grade has a crop that they grow, take care of and harvest,” explained school nurse Annie Cohn. “And they bring in the basil, and this place reeks of basil. They were picking onions or potatoes the other day. They had big smiles on their faces. These are their crops. So when we have salads, they’re not just string beans and dressing, they’re string beans with big chunks of onion and garlic and things that I never would have touched as a kid. But it comes from their garden.”
That school garden and the regular use of its produce in the Ferrisburgh Central School (FCS) kitchen are major reasons the school just earned recognition as a Bronze Award winner from the Healthier U.S. School Challenge.
According to Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Superintendent JoAn Canning, FCS and two other schools became the first schools in the Northeast to earn that award, which came with a $500 grant. Only 7 percent of the nation’s 101,000 schools have achieved that recognition, Canning wrote in an email.
To do so, the school went through a two-year process that Principal JoAnn Taft-Blakely said Cohn and FCS food service manager Patty Barnes led.
“Annie’s the one who took it on to get all the paperwork done, all the pictures in the cafeteria, all of the stuff. And then you’ve got Patty,” Taft-Blakely said. “Our garden is just known across the state. We have schools coming, even tomorrow, coming to look at our gardens and composting. So Patty’s the one who has taken us to a new level.”
Barnes and Cohn pointed out the wellness effort that led to the recognition was school-wide: Criteria for the honor included physical education, nutrition education, community programs and physical activity during classroom instruction.
“The whole school is involved, not just the kitchen,” Barnes said.
Barnes and Cohn added that credit goes even further to the investment of community members’ time in their school.
For example, some harvesting must be done before the beginning of the school day, and resident Nick Elson does much of that, first stopping by the kitchen and asking what Barnes and co-workers Sarah Anderson and Martha Kenfield need.
“Then he goes and picks it for me and brings it in. On his way to work he does that every day,” Barnes said. “We have parents that come in for one week, they sign up in the summer to do the garden for a week, and they come and water it and weed it. So it takes a lot of people, a lot of work, to get that going, too. So it’s not just us.”
Classroom teachers all incorporated nutrition education into what they present to their students, and many, if not all, have brought physical activity into their classrooms as well. ANwSU adopted guidelines a couple years back based on research that shows students learn better if they have even a modest amount of exercise.
Cohn said 1st- and 2nd-grade teacher Kaci Spear has helped many teachers understand how to bring movement into their daily routines.
“Teachers are doing movement,” Cohn said. “The first year only a couple classrooms did it. This year I’m noticing more classrooms are doing it.”
FCS also earned points for its existing composting and recycling efforts and initiatives like its Safe Routes to School program, which encourages walking to FCS and is working to make doing so safer, and Farm-To-School program, which connects students with local farmers as well as brings their produce into the kitchen.
The application effort began in 2012, when FCS formed a committee led by Barnes and Cohn and several from FCS attended Shelburne Farms’ Summer Institute on Education for Sustainability to learn more on how to meet criteria.
But mostly, Cohn said, FCS followed the guidelines in the 18-page Healthier U.S. School Challenge application.
“I’ll say this for any school,” she said. “If someone wants to improve wellness in the school, apply for these grants, because these grants outline everything a school should do to be healthy. If you can say yes to any question, you are on the right track.”
Fortunately, Cohn said, FCS had a head start because of its existing garden and ethic to serve healthy food, something instilled first by former food service head Kathy Alexander.
“She was our guru to begin with. The kitchen is the heart of the home, and it’s the heart of the school,” Cohn said.
But Barnes said the Healthier U.S. School Challenge forced FCS to up its game, for example by using even fewer canned goods in its offerings, making its snacks even healthier by following federal guidelines that insist on fruit and whole grains, and, more than ever, relying on the garden.
“It’s amped it up for us to use it in the kitchen more,” Barnes said.
And all the work has paid off, said all three women. Taft-Blakely said the students have become open-minded about food choices.
“We did a spaghetti night a couple weeks ago for parents. More kids asked for pesto pasta than marinara with meatballs. That tells you something about what we’re providing for kids,” said the principal. “I have 6-year-old kids eating things my husband won’t eat.”
Students are regularly offered bits of new foods in what the cooks call either “taste-its” or “try-its.” Barnes recently handed out bites of a new fruit.
“I did mangoes the other day,” Barnes said. “They all had to try it, and now they want mangoes, because they’ve tasted it and they’ve seen it.”
Cohn said she has noticed less food waste leaving the kitchen.
“They’re eating their vegetables. They’re eating their fruit. They’re eating the weird foods like quinoa, barley, red pepper hummus, black bean hummus. They’re eating some really nice, but weird foods for kids,” she said.
Even one notorious vegetable is requested when it is roasted the FCS way, according to Barnes.
“The kids will say to me,” she said, “so when are you going serve Brussels sprouts?”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
FERRISBURGH CENTRAL SCHOOL sixth-graders Tucker Stearns, left, and Will Crawford pick basil from the school’s garden last Thursday.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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