After a tough week wrangling with the frustrations of Act 46, it was very good to have something that reminded me of why I love and continue to do this job. Wednesday was Farm to School Awareness Day, which was celebrated with a Resolution read on the Floor of the House and a presentation given to the House Agriculture and Forestry and Senate Agriculture Committees.
During the committee hearing we heard from several school employees and students on whom the Farm to School (F2S) Program has had a strong, positive effect. It is always a delight to have children in the State House and we were very lucky to have children from Windham County testify. It sometimes brings tears to my eyes to see these bright youngsters dressed up in their “Sunday best”, maybe a little nervous, but prepared to read their testimony. I believe that experience is so valuable to them as they tell their story about how F2S has changed their lives.
Attending from NewBrook School was Christopher Parker and two third-grade students, Lucy Bertram and Isabel Erickson. Chris talked about how they used their 2018 F2S grant to rebuild their aging garden beds, increase their growing potential by adding two more beds, and buy a chest freezer to store their garden bounty. Chris reported that by the end of the summer they had more than 400 pounds of produce to process and freeze for use in school meals. In fact, he said that they had just used it up. Starter plants are provided by Dutton’s Berry Farm in Newfane and Walker Farm in Dummerston to get the garden going in the spring.
Lucy and Isabel both talked about the positive impact the program has had on them. Isabel said that the food made from scratch has helped her to be “healthy, strong, and more athletic.” She expressed her pride at her work in the school garden. She said, “It tastes good and I feel proud” and she has gained an appreciation of how hard farmers work. Lucy spoke about the experience of working in the garden and how during summer vacation the community is brought together to work in the garden. She said, “I think the food tastes better because we all helped to grow it.” Chris and the girls brought us pickled beets to sample that were so delicious I asked for the recipe.
One of the brilliant strategies used by many F2S programs is to have taste testing activities with fresh vegetables and fruit. Sometimes the children concoct the taste treats and are asked to judge their favorites. They choose the ones they like best, which are then served as part of the meal programs. Giving children this power helps invest them in making healthier food choices.
A Flood Brook student, Wyatt Williams, joined us for a second time this year. He is now a 5th grader but participated two years ago as well. Some children are nervous about testifying, but Wyatt requested to speak again, and I must admit, he is a natural in the witness chair. This year he spoke about how gratifying the school garden is and how good the “happy shakes” they make are.
We also had guests from the Green Mountain Technology and Career Center in Hyde Park. Sam Rowley is the educator who runs the small, diversified farm where they raise crops on a little less than an acre and have a small herd of beef cattle, as well as laying chickens, goats, and a rabbit. Produce raised is used in school meals.
The students, all Juniors in high school, who attended with Sam told their stories of how F2S has had an impact on their lives. One young woman described how eating the food produced and prepared on the farm has had a dramatic effect on her sense of well-being and mental health. Another young woman who had to be coaxed to testify, really opened up when she started talking about her experience at the farm. She talked about how the taste testing activities had encouraged her to try new foods and make healthier choices. One young man expressed his pleasure at cooking lunch for his classmates and how he and others had volunteered to fill in for Sam at the farm during the Christmas holiday so Sam could spend time with his family in Brattleboro. For another young man, it was clear that F2S had made a big difference in his life because of his enjoyment of working with animals and for being turned on to new foods like hummus. A couple of these students had gotten jobs as a result of the experience they had gained participating in F2S.
Harley Sterling, who works at the Westminster School, talked about doing “scratch” cooking and that when kids grow food, they’re more likely to eat it. One of the challenges I’ve heard about over the years is that people don’t know how to cook from scratch, which is one of the barriers to utilizing more fresh produce. Educating children how to cook for themselves is a real benefit when they go out into the world on their own.
These are some of the success stories behind F2P. What are some of the numbers and why is this a multiple win for the money we invest? Since 2007, 159 F2S grants and 44 Milk Cooler grants have been awarded, which have reached a total of 50,000 Vermont students and children. This includes early childhood programs, which we added recently because we realized the benefit of starting as early as possible. We have invested nearly $1.3 million during that time, which has leveraged and additional $568,410.
In 2017, the Legislature updated the F2S Act authorizing the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets to administer a new Universal Meals Grant pilot program. Because of its success, the concept has been included in the overall F2S Grant Program. In the schools where this was tried, students could eat meals at no charge. Participation in meals programs increased, which improved student health, behavior, and ability to learn. It is sad to say but, in some cases, school meals are the only healthy meals students are getting while the day.
For a relatively small investment each year, we teach children how to grow their own food, prepare it, and get them invested in eating a healthier, more locally-produced diet. Increased participation in the school meal program brings greater revenue to the program and the ability to procure more locally-produced food. As a result, students come to school better prepared to learn, which promotes more cost-effective use of our education dollars, and a healthier, successful future for themselves. At the same time, we are putting more money in the pockets of our farmers who are supplying more produce to our school meal programs. Additionally, every dollar spent on local food has a multiplier effect of 60 cents to the local economy. This is what Hunger Free Vermont and Vermont FEED (Food Education Every Day) refer to as the Virtuous Cycle. It’s what I call a beautiful thing!