ADDISON COUNTY — America’s next test kitchen may just be Vermont, if New Haven State Rep. Chris Bray has anything to say about it.
Arguing that a little state can be the perfect proving ground for new federal programs, Bray is eyeing a possible pilot project with the United States Department of Agriculture to help Vermont get more fresh, local foods into Vermont schools.
The pilot program, if approved down the road, would potentially give schools more flexibility in using the USDA funding they receive for commodity food purchases to buy from local growers instead of the USDA stockpile.
It’s work that goes hand in hand with Bray’s campaign to fortify Vermont’s local foods infrastructure, a project he began in earnest last year with the Farm to Plate legislation. That act aims to map the state’s local food system, draft a development plan growing the local foods industry, and create an “overall framework” for putting local foods into the hands of Vermonters and Vermont schools and businesses.
Strengthening the local foods economy is part of Bray’s motivation in exploring this pilot project, the second-term Democrat explained, but it takes a back seat to a bigger concern.
“I think we have an ethical responsibility to give (kids) the best education we can,” Bray said. “Part of that education should include learning about food and nutrition and health eating habits.”
FERRISBURGH CENTRAL SCHOOL Food Services Manager Kathy Alexander, left, and Val Gebo serve up hot lunch made from many different local food sources Tuesday.
The conversation about a new pilot project kicked off after Bray presented his Farm to Plate legislation at a National Council of State Legislators conference in Philadelphia this summer.
Word of the presentation eventually found its way to the USDA, and seemingly out of the blue, Bray got a call from Oscar Gonzales, the deputy director of intergovernmental affairs at USDA.
Gonzales told Bray that he was excited about the Farm to Plate project, and wanted to help. That’s when talk of a possible pilot project cropped up. It’s still early in the process, Bray said. He’ll sit down later this month with local USDA representatives, as well as some of the people who are already working to get local foods in Vermont schools, and they’ll go from there.
LOCAL FOOD, LOCAL SCHOOLS
As it turns out, there’s already a strong movement in the state to integrate local foods into the lunch lines at public schools. The national Farm to School Program has spread to roughly 2,000 schools across the country, and closer to home the Vermont Food Education Every Day (Vermont FEED) program has worked with more than 100 schools in the state to integrate food education into the curriculum.
And in Addison County, some individual food services personnel are paving the way to get local foods into schools. Kathy Alexander, the food services manager at the Ferrisburgh Central School, has pushed hard to get locally grown and produced food into the school. With the help of a supportive school board and community, she’s had a lot of luck so far.
At lunch earlier this week, students munched on local watermelon, apple cake baked with local apples and whole grain wheat, and carrots harvested at a nearby farm.
Last year, Alexander said, between 25 and 30 percent of the school’s produce was purchased from local farmers. The program feeds roughly 170 children every day. It’s hard work for her and her team of two other kitchen staff, and integrating local foods into the school lunch program throughout the winter requires some creativity. But in Alexander’s mind, it’s worth the effort.
“We cook. Everything’s made from scratch. There was a trend (in school lunch programs) to use processed foods, and a lot of schools are trying to get away from that,” she said.
The way Alexander explains the program, it’s part of the students’ education at Ferrisburgh. Students see the way the kitchen staff prepares and cooks food. Food is delivered by trucks or by local farmers, and in some cases it is even harvested from the school’s garden.
“It’s a small thing, but even that’s part of the students’ education,” she said.
Alexander isn’t working alone on this front, and her enthusiasm for local foods in the schools is spreading. This fall, students and teachers at the Lincoln Community School organized a fund-raiser to drum up money to help get more local Misty Knoll chicken into their cafeteria.
And county-wide there’s enthusiasm for this sort of work. Alexander was at the table a few months ago with food services workers and school administrators from around the county drafting guidelines — not policies — that state Addison County schools will work toward using more local foods in their kitchens.
That’s encouraging, Alexander said. She added that using local foods is harder, and it often more expensive, but that schools need to set priorities in light of those realities.
So in Alexander’s kitchen, she chooses local root vegetables and apples over, say, the lunch trays the school needs to replace. She also said that part of what makes her local foods initiative work is that it isn’t an “all or nothing” approach.
“I’m not going for organic food. I’m not going for every product to be local,” she said. “How can I sneak in some local products so that overall my program reflects a commitment to the community in a way that’s both responsible … and part of the fabric of the life here?”
From Bray’s perspective, the state needs to play a part in this push to get local foods into school cafeterias, if only because funding for statewide programs is occasionally in peril. Just last year, $25,000 for training and equipment was cut from the Vermont Farm to School program’s $110,000 budget — money that could have been used to buy freezers where schools could store local food, or to train kitchen staff in preservation techniques.
He’s also encouraged by the USDA’s interest in Farm to Plate, and the option for a pilot program that would give schools more flexibility to purchase local foods with the money that might have otherwise gone to USDA commodity foods.
Just what shape that pilot program will take is still up in the air, of course.
And in the meantime, Alexander pointed out that schools don’t need to wait for a pilot program to dive into local foods initiatives of their own. She, for one, doesn’t see the USDA commodity donations — in Ferrisburgh’s case, roughly $5,000 worth of food essentially donated by the U.S. government — as standing in the way of adding local foods to her students’ plates.
“It’s not either or,” she said. “It’s not black and white. The commodity food is a small portion of what we use. We have to learn to use that wisely.”
So she’ll toss canned carrots from the USDA into chili, mid-winter, to boost the chili’s nutritional value. But she’ll also be baking with Ben Gleason’s whole wheat from Bridport, and getting local beets and turnips into chicken pot pie. And while the weather is still good, she and her staff will slice up local watermelons.
“It’s a balancing act,” Alexander said. “You set your priorities and you try to figure out how to make it work. When you try to think of it as all or nothing, that’s when it falls apart.”