BRATTLEBORO—Blenders whirr and cinnamon coats apple slices as educators from Vermont and New Hampshire make smoothies and snacks.
Karen Saunders, workshop leader during the Food Connects fifth Annual Farm to School Conference, tells the teachers they don’t need recipes. They and their students will figure out what tastes good.
The exercise highlights the fun of teaching young students about nutrition and locally grown food at the conference on April 9. The activity also prepares students for more difficult questions around food justice, workers’ rights, local economies, how students fit into a wider human family, and the stigma that often accompanies poverty.
Farm to School is a program that connects students to farming and local agriculture through school gardens, classroom activities, field trips to local farms, and purchasing local food for use in school cafeterias.
Katherine Jandernoa, farm to schools program manager at Food Connects, views the conference held at the World Learning/SIT campus as a platform to connect schools and other organizations into a collaborative network.
She said the state has set a goal of all school communities involved in a Farm to School program by 2020.
As organizers, and a member of the state Farm to School leadership team, Food Connects must think outside the box to help existing programs remain sustainable while including new school communities, she said.
Schools play an important role in the lives of low-income families, said Jandernoa. For many years, schools have provided breakfast and lunch to hungry children. The school meals program has expanded to include dinners and weekend meals.
Schools create a clear avenue between local food and families, she said. Providing meals and food education are two of the ways schools work on solving hunger. By providing local food, students also learn where their food comes from — and food’s role in the local economy.
Each community is different, said Jandernoa. Not all food projects work in every community. The organization constantly looks for sustainable and replicable ways to build the local food network.
Saunders teaches fifth grade at Putney Central School in Putney and teaches adults at Marlboro College Graduate School on Vernon Street. She co-taught a workshop on food justice in the classroom with Vicky Senni, education and outreach coordinator at the Brattleboro Food Co-op, at the conference.
Senni told the workshop attendees, “Food is an easy access point. Everyone eats.”
“Food is our sustenance,” said Senni. “While we’re exploring where it comes from, we’re also nourishing ourselves.”
Asking where food comes from connects kids to the world, she added.
Saunders and Senni walked fellow educators through classroom activities such as placing ingredients on a map of the world to teach how far foods, like vanilla, travel to reach Vermont. Students also role-play as people involved in the banana trade. Students have also held a mock trial of a seed patent lawsuit.
And some days, the teachers are the students.
Saunders said she learned about the stigma around poverty during a middle school food drive to benefit Putney Food Shelf. Students were encouraged to bring in donations for the food shelf, said Saunders. The class that gathered the most food received a prize.
Separately, five students approached Saunders. They told their teacher they had no food to put in the donation box. The students worried they’d get in trouble or that they would disappoint their classmates.
Saunders realized that, although the project was well intended, the food drive ostracized students whose families are on very low incomes.
Saunders and her fellow teachers changed course to create learning activities that had the students work as a group. Students asked local companies for donations. They gathered quotes from people who used the food shelf and conducted a radio theater. Students picked apples from a local orchard for the food shelf.
Teaching about food also teaches children some of the harsh realities of the world we live in, such as the fact of child slavery, said Senni.
However, Saunders and Senni said that when teaching about food justice, educators should not leave their students feeling hopeless.
Children need to know they’re not alone but rather part of a larger human family, said Saunders. She shows students photos of farm workers and food companies’ headquarters, and discusses efforts to resist injustice, which helps students learn from struggles.
Feeding all children
The school cafeteria is one place school divides students by income, said Anore Horton, child nutrition advocacy manager for Hunger Free Vermont.
Students deduce who qualifies for free or reduced lunches. These categories create stigma for kids, she said. Some students are too embarrassed to eat at school.
Horton led a workshop on how schools could receive funding to provide meals to all students regardless of income.
One workshop participant said that she knew which students lived in homes lacking adequate food.
As the students leave for summer vacation, the ones going to homes without enough food start crying, she said.
Other participants nodded in agreement.
Summer vacation is not fun for all students, said Horton.
Hunger is something an estimated 27,000 Vermont children struggle with, said Horton. Schools that jump through unending federal hoops to receive funding for meal programs provide nutrition students may not receive at home.
By providing universal meals, schools can reduce some federal red tape, potentially save taxpayers money, and circumvent the stigma students feel in the lunch room, said Horton.
Horton said food security and hunger are a scale. At the top of the scale, called food-secure, a household knows if it can provide ample food for everyone.
Next on the continuum: food-insecure, she said. A household may not run out of food but the adults constantly worry and juggle expenses. This stress seeps into family dynamics. Sometimes the family reduces the quality of the food to stretch their budget. While everyone still has enough to eat, they may be dealing with malnutrition should the quality and variety of meals drop too low.
By the time a family reaches the level of hunger, said Horton, the adults have reduced their meals so the kids can eat.
Severe hunger means everyone in the family lacks enough to eat, she said.
The continuum of hunger exists statewide, Horton said. Most hungry Vermont families deal with food insecurity rather than severe hunger.
According to Horton, 13 percent of households in Vermont are food-insecure. About 27,000 kids, or about one in five children, live in food-insecure households.
In Vermont, 40 percent of students are enrolled in the federal free or reduced-price meals programs, while about 10 percent of children in the state depend on food shelves each month, she said.
Last year and this year saw the highest percentage of food-insecure children the state has ever had, said Horton.
“The recession is clearly not over in Vermont,” she said.
The federal government provides multiple school lunch and snack programs, said Horton, but none of the programs is entirely paperwork- or frustration-free.
Serving universal meals that feed all students regardless of income can prove easier for the school, do away with some of the stigma in the cafeteria, raise the nutrition level for all students, and possibly save taxpayers money, said Horton.
With universal meals, schools count meals, not students, she said. This can help save staff time and reduce stigma for students. Students don’t need to identify as “poor enough” to receive free or reduced-price lunches.
Universal meals will also help capture students whose families miss the income thresholds for other programs by as little as $100, Horton continued.
Finally, participating in a universal meals program could reduce or eliminate schools’ meal debt, she said. Meal debt represents the money families owe schools for lunches or snacks. Taxpayers pick up that bill.
How much unpaid meal debt Vermont schools carry is unknown, said Horton. The state is still gathering that information.
If 50 percent of a school’s population is eligible for free and reduced-price meals, said Horton, then the school is also eligible for Title I funding, a pot of money separate from that which funds free and reduced -price meals, she said.
Title I is intended to help close the achievement gap of students from low-income families.
When a school population reaches the 50 percent threshold, it also means any entity in the town, like a summer program, can offer universal meals as well, she said.
Creating culture change
Members of the Farm to School movement have witnessed the program build strength and change how children think about food. Although schools still struggle with stigma and funding, participants at the Food Connects conference say they see a bright horizon ahead.
Over five years, Jandernoa and Food Connects have witnessed school communities build wider networks with families, farmers, and other schools.
Five years ago, many schools operated in isolation, she said. Now they work collaboratively sharing resources and experiences.
“The collaborative approach is growing,” Jandernoa said. “More school communities feel part of a movement.”
At its core, Food s to cultivate connections between consumers and farmers that support farmers, she said.
When a community has a strong local food system it also has a stronger economy because more dollars stay local, she said.
The causes of hunger reach beyond local communities and into national systemic problems such as the growing gap between rich and poor, she said.
“Hunger is one symptom of a much larger problem,” said Jandernoa.
Johanna Herron of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture told conference attendees in her opening remarks that the state’s balance of policy, investment, and partnerships has embedded the Farm to School movement deeper within the fabric of Vermont compared to the situation in other states.
“When you’re working on culture change, it’s not always obvious,” said Herron about seeing results.
Herron sees the changes in small ways, like school job descriptions that list understanding of Farm to School under qualifications.
“I think we’re at a catalytic time where we can move Farm to School forward,” she said.
Herron said she recently sat in on a panel of fourth-, sixth-, and seventh-graders who spoke to members of the Legislature.
When asked what they throught of Farm to School, the fourth graders were cute, said Herron. They talked about the school garden.
The seventh graders, according to Herron, demonstrated what kids learn from Farm to School.
According to Herron, one student said, “Well, I think twice when I eat things.”