The Vermont Farm to School Program

You are what you eat, or so the old cliche goes. But what does that actually mean in a world filled with things like Red 40 food dye,  benzoic acid, and ferrous gluconate?  If you want to know what you're eating these days, it helps if you have a spare degree in biochemistry kicking around.

Fortunately, there's more out there to eat than just mechanically-separated chicken and high-fructose corn syrup, and one organization aims to bring those home-grown foods directly to Vermont schools. Since 2000, VT F.E.E.D (Food Education Every Day) has been working to distribute local foods to school cafeterias while teaching kids about agricultural practices and the greater food economy. In addition to boasting a spiffy, James Bond-style acronym, F.E.ED facilitates Farm to School programs at 33 schools in 13 counties, sourcing produce, meat, and dairy products from nearly 200 Vermont farms.

Farm to School programs were first introduced as a part of a nation-wide effort to combat rising obesity levels and support struggling small farms. But according to Koi Boynton, Farm to School Coordinator at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, the original concept was "more of a farm to cafeteria model" than anything else. Finding the education portion of the program to be lacking, F.E.E.D worked to develop the "three Cs" model, a program that would integrate local food into not only into cafeteria, but the classroom and the community as well. Since it was created, the "three Cs" model has been adopted by Farm to School programs all over the nation.
"F.E.E.D took it one step further and now folks are saying that this is the way to do it, this is the way to really integrate local foods into the cafeteria, classroom, and community," said Boynton.

F.E.E.D is a partnership between three different entities, Shelburne Farms, Foodworks at Two Rivers Center, and the Northeast Organic Farming Organization of Vermont. Pooling their resources through F.E.E.D, these three organizations now work together with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, which provides grants for Farm to School programs at K-12 schools across the state. Vermont was the very first state to approve legislative funding for Farm to School programs.

In the beginning, F.E.E.D focused on elementary school programs, but since then the organization has expanded its efforts to high schools as well.

"We're seeing more and more every day, more and more high schools getting involved, and the things that they're integrating into their classrooms are very exciting," said Boynton. "When high schools get involved, it's interesting to see the change because the students really start to become the catalyst and the activists to move the program forward. They really start pushing to see new things at the cafeteria. "

"Harwood is one example of a wonderful food program," said Boynton, citing the Farm to School Program at Harwood Union High School in Moretown, Vermont. "They brought in a former chef from Stowe Mountain Lodge. He came in and started cooking for the school and he put together incredible dishes."

"They experienced a whole new variety of food that they may not have to opportunity to do in the past," she said.

In addition, Harwood offers internships at nearby farms, granting students the chance to learn about Vermont agriculture firsthand. "They're able to take students on to farms and work directly with the farmers, and it's evolved since its introduction," said Boynton. "Now they're looking working with the Vermont Youth Conservation Crops to do different projects on the farms."

To coincide with their Farm to School program, Thetford Academy, in Thetford, Vermont, offered a course comparing local food production to processed food production. In order to gauge the impact of processed food on the local economy and the local environment, Students interviewed the owners of nearby general stores to find out where their groceries came from, and even called up food companies to inquire about ingredients.

"They have really taken it to a whole new level," said Boynton. "It really opened up the student's eyes to what industrial food may mean to their state and their region, and what it means to their nutrition as well. It's interesting to know that students have that opportunity to take a closer look at what they're consuming.

Building on the successful Farm to School programs already in place, Boynton plans on further expansion and unification with the goal of eventually creating a state-wide network of programs. Boynton also hopes to use Farm to School programs as a way to introduce high school students to careers in nutrition, agriculture, and even culinary arts.

While costs may prevent cafeterias from ever switching to completely localvore menus, Boynton is proud of what they've accomplished so far. "What I think is cool here is just the transformation in the school cafeteria. The students have become active members of the community, learning about the foods that are being served and how that relates to them nutritionally, as well as impacting the community.”

"That's the ultimate goal of the program," she said. "having students, when they do get out of school, being more thoughtful consumers and more thoughtful about the purchases they make."
And that's some food for thought.

For more information on Vermont Farm to School programs, please contact Koi Boynton at (802)828-2084, or visit http://vermontagriculture.com/