FEED schools connect nutrition and learning

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(Host) One-hundred-fifty students, faculty and cafeteria personnel from Vermont schools are meeting in Montpelier this week. They’re learning more about a school nutrition program that brings food from Vermont farms to school tables.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Sound of children digging potatoes) “Over here. Underneath this hay there’s a whole lot of them.”
“Holy cow, there’s a million of them!”

(Zind) On a cool fall morning at Brewster Pierce Memorial School in Huntington Center a group of third and fourth graders are digging potatoes in a small garden at the edge of the playground. Even in this rural Vermont community, a lot of these children are surprised to discover that potatoes grow underground.

Alison Forrest runs the school’s cafeteria. The potatoes will be used in a future cafeteria meal. On today’s menu?

(Forrest) “We’re having marinated tofu, baby bok choi raw, a stir fry with cauliflower, carrots, celery peppers and bok choi, peanut noodles, apples and Cabot yogurt.”

(Zind) At Brewster Pierce, lunch is an up-close-and-personal experience. In the fall, children visit a local farm to harvest crops. On many days, before they go to lunch – lunch comes to them. Forrest visits the classrooms and passes out sample menu items. She talks about what’s being served and how it’s grown.

The hope is to give students a better understanding of how food is grown and prepared and a greater tolerance to things that may be new to them.

(Forrest) “Austin, big or small piece of tofu?”
(Austin) “Big!”

(Zind) Like all Vermont cafeteria managers, Forrest takes advantage of free U.S. Department of Agriculture commodities. But she also buys vegetables and fruits from Vermont producers. Some comes from a local farm, the rest she gets from Black River Produce, a wholesale distributor of Vermont fruits and vegetables.

For 17 years, Forrest has been preparing meals with three goals in mind – feeding students fresher, more nutritious food, educating them about where their food comes from – and supporting Vermont agriculture. This approach is finding it’s way into other Vermont schools through a program called FEED – Food Education Every Day – a collaboration between the NOFA, the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, Food Works and Shelburne Farms. Abbie Nelson is with NOFA.

(Nelson) “What we’re doing is trying to connect the three C’s – the cafeteria, the community and the classroom.”

(Zind) Nelson says FEED is about more than having children go to a local farm to pick carrots. It’s about integrating lessons about food and nutrition into the classroom and making the cafeteria a kind of laboratory for applying those lessons. FEED schools are required to send at least half of their faculty to a summer training institute to learn about nutrition. It’s a big commitment – and not all schools are willing to make it. Nelson says it takes the support of school officials and parents to help teachers and cafeteria staff make the changes necessary.

Buying food from area farms can be more time consuming for kitchen managers.

(Nelson) “We aren’t so organized that we have a distributor who can be the sole provider of local produce and sometimes it takes relationships with a few local farmers to purchase locally.”

(Zind) It’s also more expensive to buy from a local farmer, and serving local foods instead of prepared food adds to labor costs. But Nelson says the increased costs are partly offset. There’s less spoilage with local products and their fresher taste means kids are more likely to eat the food instead of leaving it on their plates.

Seven schools are currently enrolled in the FEED program, which is in its fourth year, and Nelson says more are waiting to join. But there are obstacles to adopting a farm to school program.

Doug Davis is director of food service for the Burlington school system’s eleven schools, which serve 3,700 students. Davis says he buys from area producers when he can, but local food amounts to a tiny percentage of the food served in Burlington school cafeterias. For Davis, who gets most of his food from a large distributor, there are challenges to buying locally.

(Davis) “The primary challenge is product consistency. The product would not be available year round. Cost – a lot of the stuff we bring in from California we buy in such volume that we can basically get a price and it will lock for the year. Another challenge that we face working locally is the growing season. Usually stuff becomes available as the school years are ending and a lot of schools are looking at budgetary things or running out the inventory that they already have or consuming the rest of their commodity dollars.”

(Zind) Davis says he’s interested in buying more local products and willing to make changes to accomplish that. Judging from the overflow turnout for this week’s FEED conference in Montpelier, many others share that interest.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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