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Critical Eating

A Fresh Way of Looking at School Food


Several years ago, students in the Burlington (Vt.) School District lived without any real regard for a healthy diet or nutrition. Obesity-related illnesses plagued the 10-school district, and many of its 4,500 students were not getting their daily supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, school officials came to learn that the few healthy foods served to the students- 45 percent of whom received them for free or at reduced prices-were often thrown away. Thus, in the fall of 2003, the Burlington School Food Project (BSFP) was born.


The Burlington Food Council was established in 2003 to examine the farm to school food system and to improve food, farm and nutrition education in the city. The BSFP was the result of its completed Community Food Assessment, an examination of a range of community food issues and assets. The council adopted a School Food Action Plan-not an official policy-based on its findings so as to keep the school board from being locked into any kind of "financial hook," says district food service director Doug Davis.

"This program is a partnership between many groups, and through them we're seeing amazing results."-Doug Davis, Burlington (Vt.) School District food service director

Farmers cultivate food less than a mile from downtown on the fertile floodplain of the Winooski River, so Burlington is perfectly positioned to integrate local agricultural resources into school programs. According to the BSFP newsletter, the project is a collaborative effort to connect students and their families with nearby farms to bring more hands-on agriculture education to schools. Its main goals are to expand the capacity for Burlington to better meet the food needs of students, encourage healthy food choices for children and their families, and improve district access to food from local farms.

Going Out into the Field

In September 2005 the Burlington Intervale Community Farm established with the Intervale Foundation a volunteer gleaning program to harvest and distribute hundreds of bunches of basil to make pesto for the school district. Test batches had previously been made at Edmunds Middle School that the students responded favorably to, but not before clearing the initial hurdle of trying something green!

Collaborating with the local farms and a team of parent volunteers, first- and second-graders from the district harvested the basil. Back at the schools, the students picked the basil leaves from the stems and processed them with garlic, cheeses and juices, ultimately turning out more than 10 gallons of pesto. More student groups from the district were then sent to the farms, ultimately yielding a total of 25 gallons of pesto for the district, which is now served on sandwich bars, pasta and pizza, and has been added to the new cafeteria menu item, "Vermont Minestrone." The district will send more students back to the farms this fall with the Intervale Foundation to harvest other crops.

Taste Tests and Recipe Creation

Students from Edmunds and Hunt Middle Schools participate in taste tests on a monthly basis, for which they prepare and serve new recipes with local chefs using local produce. Designed for potential use throughout the district, some of the creations currently on cafeteria menus include Asian napa cabbage slaw, zucchini carrot bread and Vermont apple berry crisp.

The local volunteer chefs who have joined the team work both with students and food service staff . Fuad Ndibalema of the Burlington Farmer's Market, for instance, worked with students to develop fillings for breakfast samosas. And Frank Pace of Smokejacks inspired so much interest and excitement about local and fresh foods that two eighth-graders decided to intern with him.

Taste testing and selecting the new culinary creations is no easy task. Food committee groups consider recipes on the basis of their inclusion of whole grains, fresh and preferably local fruits or vegetables, cultural appropriateness and cost effectiveness.

Now, almost four years later, the district prepares and provides 930,000 meals annually using fresh and local produce and has sparked an overall student interest in healthy foods, says Superintendent Jeanne Collins. Farm-fresh produce on the lunch line has tripled since the project began, and Davis says that number will continue to grow. At Barnes Elementary School a school where 100 percent of students receive free or reduced price lunch-a generous gift from the Brennan Foundation has made fresh fruit available in every classroom every day.

"This program is a partnership between many different groups, and through them we're seeing some amazing results," explains Davis.

Zach Miners is assistant editor.