BRATTLEBORO—A young boy and his father hold their plates of waffles and sausage as Alison West pours maple syrup.
“We’re serving real maple syrup,” said West, food service director for Brattleboro elementary schools, who works for contractor Fresh Picks Café, a division of Café Services, based in Manchester, N.H.
On April 8, elementary students held their parents’ hands and led them to the breakfast buffet of sausages, waffles, French toast, yogurt, juice, and coffee arranged in the Green Street Elementary School gymnasium.
By the time the community breakfast ended, 70 adults and 110 kids had eaten breakfast, visited with one another, and spoken with legislators.
West explained that each school holds such community breakfasts twice a year for the different grade levels.
For the April 8 breakfast, Green Street School and Hunger Free Vermont invited legislators in order to spotlight for families how the Universal Free Meals Program improves schools, West said.
The federal program lets all students eat lunch for free regardless of family income, unlike typical models for school-meal programs.
Schools qualify for universal meals through a variety of pathways. For example, a school can qualify if 40 percent or more of students are certified under normal protocols to receive free meals.
According to Hunger Free Vermont, “Studies show that universal free school meal programs increase participation, leading to better student health and learning, and a strong school meals business.”
Fresh food, high standards
West said the school also wanted to spotlight its nutritional standards, which are stricter than those at other schools in the state.
“Our nutritional standards for the town elementary schools are much higher then the national requirements — for example, we don’t allow high-fructose corn syrup, any artificial dyes, or mechanically separated meats, but we serve things like whole-grain-rich products and cage-free humane eggs,” she said.
Fresh Picks purchases from four local food providers year-round: Green Mountain Creamery (yogurt from Guilford), Dutton Farm (berries from Newfane), Green Mountain Orchards (apples from Putney), and Chappell’s Vermont Potatoes (from Williamstown), she said.
Every school day, West and her colleagues prepare up to 11 lunch choices, including a vegetarian option.
“Just at Green Street, we do approximately 180 breakfasts, 160 lunches, and 100 after-school snacks, and between all three schools we average 1,200 meals a day,” she said.
“We pride ourselves on using as much from-scratch items as we can — no canned soup here!” West continued.
Principal Mark Speno watched the morning commotion from behind the yogurt and granola station. He spooned granola into a yogurt cup for a woman carrying two plates.
He said the goal of the breakfast is to build community.
“What better way to start your day than to have a meal with your family, and to meet some other families as well?” he said.
The school hosts community meals in the fall and spring. Parents speak highly of the event, he said.
“Families always appreciate the opportunity to spend half an hour at the school before they head to work and have a nice meal with their kids,” Speno said.
“We serve breakfast, lunch, and after-school snacks for after-school programs for all kids,” he continued. “We have really great participation in our food program, and I can’t say enough about it — it’s just overall a really positive thing.”
“I have kids myself in this system, and so to be able to get up and send them to school without taking that time to make a lunch and knowing that they’re going to eat healthy is a really great feeling,” Speno said.
Sheila Humphreys, farm-to-school program coordinator with Food Connects, visited with students along with Rep. Mollie Burke, P-Brattleboro.
According to Humphreys, the Food Connects food hub program “aggregates local produce from approximately 60 producers” for schools, hospitals, and other institutions, making it possible for small farm operations to sell to large institutions.
The organization delivers orders twice a week. Food Connects also provides food-to-school programing for school staff.
For example, said Humphreys, the organization provides teachers with professional development programs, along with the school’s wellness committee’s efforts.
Finally, the organization collaborates with cafeterias, helping them figure out how to use their budget to buy as much local fresh food as they can, she said.
These partnerships help support the local economy and improve nutrition in the schools, said Humphreys.
Enjoying a meal and meeting friends
Andrea Conkling and Chris Frost were eating breakfast with their son Clenn.
“You get to eat what the kids are eating,” said Conkling. “I think it’s good to see what they’re being served.”
Last fall, the school served pumpkin pancakes, she said.
“Café Services is doing a great job offering the kids variety,” she said. “They try to gear it towards things the kids enjoy, while also fitting within the requirements of being healthy.”
Conkling also serves on the school’s Parent-Teacher Organization, now busy preparing for the May 4 Tulip Trot, a 5k walk/run fundraiser.
Clenn said he liked eating breakfast at Green Street. Last year, he would eat breakfast at home and then come to school for a second breakfast. (This year, he said, his appetite has changed and he doesn’t eat as many breakfasts at school.)
Monday morning was Frost’s first time at the community meal.
“It’s nice as a parent to come in and have breakfast with your child,” he said. “I’m away for work a lot so this is really nice.”
Sam Martin and his daughter Kathelea, a kindergartener, visit with her friends — they call her Kit-Kat — at a nearby table.
As Martin fixed a barrette for Kathelea, he noted that this was his second community breakfast. He said he enjoys spending the time with his daughter at school.
“She loves it, and she was dying for me to come with her today,” Martin said.
He also enjoys seeing Kathelea “getting to interact with all her friends and see everybody, and me getting to meet everybody and all her friends also.”
Michelle Meima visited with Stephanie Hooks during what was their first community breakfast. Their daughters, Gemma Meima and Layla Hooks, sat nearby talking with Kathelea.
“It’s nice to see all the parents with their kids,” said Meima. “My daughter was just so excited this morning that I was coming to school with her.”
‘We see you, keep going!’
Burke was joined by Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, at the breakfast. They visited with their fourth-grade hosts.
Toleno, whose two sons are Green Street School graduates, has a niece in third grade there. He is also a chef.
“It feels a little like being back home,” said Toleno, who said that providing universal meals is a critical part of improving nutrition for kids.
According to Toleno, as kids get older, they feel stigma from receiving free or reduced-price food.
As a result, approximately half the kids who had eaten school meals in elementary school, showed up in the lunch line in high school.
“They didn’t suddenly shift their socioeconomic status, so it was about stigma, and other things that were driving that,” he said of the drop in student participation. “So kids were not eating as well as they should have and were not getting the basic calories they needed.”
Describing universal meals as an “essential shift,” Toleno thinks there’s still more work to be done, “but it’s a very important starting point.”
“I know the investment that this school system is making in expanding access to school food,” he said. “And I think that’s super critical for us, the legislators, to come here to celebrate what’s already happening.”
“We know that we’ve got people paying attention and doing good work, so it’s just more to say, ‘We see you, keep going!’” he added.
Good local food connects with other issues
Burke said she knew a few of the children because of a fall art project she had done with them as part of her nonprofit, Art in the Neighborhood.
Burke’s children attended Green Street School, and she enjoyed seeing how the school has expanded as a community.
Burke said that serving school lunches hooks into more issues than people realize. One such issue is supporting the Vermont economy and local businesses.
“When you think about what school lunches used to be like and you think about where we’ve come — a lot of times, a lot of the things we look at, the quality gets lower,” Burke said. “But here’s something where the quality is improving.”
School meals “are really about kids’ health and it’s about mental health, too, and physical health, being able to concentrate in school and have good nutrition,” she added. “It’s about addressing poverty.”
“There’s so many things that this does,” she said. “There are so many ways that what people are eating connects to other issues.”