Area Schools Serve Local, Wholesome Food

Sustainability requires systemic change, inventing a “new normal” in the way our institutions operate. One of the most promising and accessible places where such change is happening is in the school cafeteria.

Farm-to-school programs and visionary educators recognized early on that sustainable agriculture and a healthful diet could be modeled, promoted and taught, and thus made a new cultural norm, through food service practices in public schools. Now, many schools, particularly around Vermont, are transitioning from an industrial-style system that distributes processed, packaged commodities as cheaply as possible to a system of community relationships devoted to good nutrition, local agriculture and environmental stewardship.

Last week I visited two schools where this transformation is happening. Both Gretchen Czaja, the Healthy Foods Provider and Educator at Woodstock Elementary School, and Heather Evans, the new food service director in Reading, prepare meals from scratch using as few processed ingredients as possible. They aim to provide nutritionally complete meals, a wide variety of vegetables and fruits, and as many local ingredients as they can obtain.

For example, Czaja buys beef from Cloudland Farm, pork from On the Edge Farm and produce, including hundreds of pounds of carrots, from Heartwood/Fable Farm. Evans buys eggs and maple syrup from local residents, including students at the school, and relates that “the community is sharing produce from their gardens.” She is looking to establish relationships with farmers.

Both schools maintain gardens, enabling children to participate in growing, harvesting and cleaning produce that they’ll later eat. “It’s so cool and the kids love it,” Evans says. The W.E.S. garden has produced enough basil to stock the freezer with pesto for the year, and the first grade class recently planted garlic.

Food education introduces children to whole foods and creative recipes that use them. Evans strives to provide a “sense-oriented experience” that highlights diverse colors and textures, as well as flavors. She spoke about serving several varieties of pears, and showed me an assortment of differently colored beans students had harvested.

Kids have become accustomed to processed food, with its additives and high concentrations of salt, sugar and corn syrup. When they help grow and prepare produce from a school garden, or encounter tantalizing recipes at lunch, they’re more inclined to try fresh foods.

“We’ve seen a tremendous growth in what kids are willing to try,” says Czaja. Parents say that children try and enjoy foods at school they’d never tried at home. Both food service pros point out that this takes patience. Kids often need exposure to a new food several times before giving it a try. The positive atmosphere and peer enthusiasm at school encourage them.

Both schools teach students about composting and provide a setup for easily separating waste after meals. Understanding natural cycles replaces the old norm of tossing wastes out of sight and mind.

How can schools change from cheap commodity food to quality local produce, given that taxpayers are stretched and budgets are tight? Creative food service directors like Czaja and Evans keep costs down by utilizing school and local residents’ gardens, negotiating with producers and using ingredients efficiently; Evans points out, for example, that bulk buying from commercial distributors can result in wasteful quantities, especially at a small school.

Besides that, though, the local food revolution challenges us to examine our priorities and to recognize the true costs of food. You get what you pay for. Lower prices generally mean that a community’s money is going away to profit some distant corporation and serving our children less wholesome food. By sourcing ingredients close to home, says Czaja, “you’re paying to keep your local economy alive.” Plus nourishing children and cultivating healthy eating habits.

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