NEWFANE—NewBrook Elementary School Chef Chris Parker has a simple goal: to feed all of his students, regardless of their ability to pay, for free.
He’s interested in feeding adults in the community, too, such as school staff and the students’ parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other caregivers and friends.
Adults who can pay for the school’s monthly community meals have to fork over $3.75, but that’s a suggested donation, Parker said.
Nobody will be turned away from NewBrook’s “Falcon Cafe” cafeteria if they can’t afford the meal. And they don’t have to wait until the next monthly community meal, either.
“I will feed any parent who wants to eat with their children, any day of the week,” Parker said.
Parker began working for NewBrook last October, has spent some time cooking at The Farm Table at Kringle Candle in Bernardston, Mass., and has worked in kitchens since he was 15 years old.
In April, Parker began studying the Provision 2 universal free meals program, with assistance from Hunger Free Vermont Child Nutrition Initiatives Specialist Rebecca Mitchell.
“Once there was a glimmer of hope that I could feed all these students for free, I took it and ran with it,” he said.
With the new school year, Parker enrolled the school in the Provision 2 program.
By serving breakfast and lunch made from scratch, incorporating locally-grown foods — including produce he and the students have grown in the school’s large garden — and offering monthly community meals, Parker is inching ever closer to his goal of feeding everyone.
He noted that having autonomy helps. Because NewBrook’s kitchen is independent and is not run by a food service company, as long as he’s following state and USDA nutrition guidelines, he can make decisions based on what’s best for NewBrook and its population.
If NewBrook can get enough participation in the school’s meals program this year, they can get a large part of the cost reimbursed by the federal and state government. That’s one way a school can offer universal free meals to its students — through a four-year USDA program called Provision 2.
In Provision 2, a school’s meal reimbursement rate is determined by how many students sign up for breakfast and lunch in the first year, also known as the base year, and what percentage of the students are free-eligible, reduced-price eligible, and full-pay.
According to a document about Provision 2 issued by Hunger Free Vermont, “[T]hese percentages are then applied to the actual number of reimbursable meals served each month during the next three years.”
So far, the base year is working well and the number of participants is up, Parker said. Last year, he served breakfast to an average of 27 students per day. As of mid-September, the average is 43 daily for breakfast. His goal is 60.
Lunch is also thriving. During the 2017-2018 school year, the kitchen served an average of 73 students per day; so far, this year’s average is 89, and Parker’s goal is 100 of the school’s 129 students.
“My goal is really 100 percent participation,” Parker said, but he realizes this may be unattainable because “some students are picky or have really severe food allergies” beyond what he can accommodate.
Students aren’t the only ones enjoying Parker’s food.
“Staff participation this year has quadrupled,” Parker said. “Last year, I served maybe five staff meals per week. Now, it’s five per day. They pay the full price, $3.75, and they’re supporting [the food program] to help make sure students are getting what they need, as well.”
Covering the costs
The revenue Parker collects from staff and during community meals helps offset the costs of feeding the students.
Once the school gets beyond the base year, all students receive breakfast and lunch. This means no student has to bring lunch money.
It also means no student has to experience the stigma of receiving free or reduced lunch, their caregivers don’t have to fill out any forms, and no school administrator has to process them.
As Parker explained, a typical way some schools get certified to receive USDA funding for universal free meals is to have 50 percent of the student body “in the system,” which could mean the student is in foster care or their family receives food stamps or other assistance.
NewBrook doesn’t qualify in this way.
Still, even for families that don’t qualify for assistance, meals can be expensive and stressful, Parker said. Breakfast is especially fraught, he said, because everyone is trying to get ready for the day, and what if your kid doesn’t like what you made? Meanwhile, the bus is outside waiting.
“Instead, send your kids to me and let me feed them,” Parker said.
“If parents pay taxes in a town, their kids should eat for free” while in school, Parker said. He estimates that by allowing a child to eat breakfast and lunch in school every day, a family can save $30 to $40 per week on the grocery bill.
And feeding kids two meals every school day has other benefits, Parker said. “There’s a huge reduction in absenteeism, nurse’s visits, and behavioral problems,” he said, “because they’re eating and being cared for.”
For Parker, it’s about more than just healthy eating. It’s about bringing people together, especially for the monthly community lunches.
“We want to make sure Vermont stays a tight-knit community. Students should have recognizable faces they can go to, and it gets back to community involvement,” he said. “It’s missing now and I’d love to see that come back.”
The universal meals program is just one aspect of NewBrook’s dedication to feeding its students well and teaching them about where their food comes from.
Parker is an active participant in the school’s Farm-to-School program. This past summer, he rebuilt the school’s five garden beds, added two bigger beds, and, with the students, grew and harvested 326 pounds of produce so far this year.
“We’ll be very close to 500 pounds,” by the end of the season, Parker said. “So far this year, we’ve had tomatoes, broccoli, green beans, carrots, and a ridiculous amount of cucumbers.” He noted the butternut squash is still growing.
The funding to support the garden’s expansion came from a $15,000 state grant NewBrook received last year. The money also paid for a 25-cubic-foot chest freezer to store the produce, “which is 90 percent full,” Parker said.
Another grant funded the school’s new salad bar. In a questionnaire Parker sent out last year, about one-third of the students said they wanted one.
“It really supports our farm-to-school theme,” he said. Some students don’t like the hot vegetable of the day, and when that happens, Parker said, “they can say ‘no, thank you,’” and visit the salad bar and choose whatever vegetables they want. Not only does this ensure kids are eating their vegetables, but it reduces waste and controls the kitchen’s per-plate costs.
“Everyone deserves to eat this way,” Parker said. “I want to help kids make healthier decisions. This will help them as they become adults.”
Parker doesn’t want to stop with NewBrook, though. He envisions his universal, produce-rich meals program as a model for other schools.
“This not only helps our kids,” Parker said, “but it gives people from other places a reason to move here.”