When was the last time you enjoyed a fresh plantain with your lunch? Or when did you last snack on a freshly-made kale chip? If you’re a student at Johnson Elementary School, the answer to those questions…is just last week.
Choose a weekday lunch session at an LNSU school and you’ll see students and staff enjoying fresh meals prepared by experienced professionals using foods from farmers and producers in our region. Hairnets, disposable gloves, stained aprons, and all-white uniforms usually tied to the ‘lunch lady’ stereotypes have long since given way to the certified nutrition experts we rely on to feed our students 175 days a year. And it’s a job that carries a tremendous responsibility.
“Food is a right,” explains Karyl Kent, Director of Nutrition Services for Lamoille North Supervisory Union. “The cafeteria is a place to break bread, a place where students should feel safe and welcome, a place where they have reliable access to foods to help them learn, a place that will fuel them through their day.”
In America, one in seven children lives in households without consistent access to quality foods. That’s 11 million children across the nation who may not know where their next meal will come from. In Vermont, more than 13 thousand children face hunger each day. These reasons only enhance the critical role school meals play for Vermont students and beyond.
On a gloomy October morning, Kent spends part of a district professional development day catching up on paperwork, looking into potential farm-to-school partners, and planning meals and menus for the months ahead. The gray forecast doesn’t impact her mood, however. There are too many exciting opportunities for LNSU nutrition to let anything get her down. Kent has been in school nutrition since 2008 following years spent working in restaurants and catering.
Having worked in several school districts before joining Lamoille North in 2018, Kent has since found a long-term home among her team of 18 spread across LNSU’s schools. “This team is fantastic, if you don’t have dedicated folks working in the kitchen, then kids don’t get fed well,” she adds. “I think folks in our communities would be blown away by the number of mandated trainings and certifications our nutrition employees have to complete.”
Anneleise Beach is one of those accredited nutrition team members. Beach is the head Chef at Johnson Elementary, leading a team of three through daily meal prep. This Tuesday morning, Beach was preparing some homemade mac and cheese. Noodles were cooked and strained and local milk was added to make the roux. “Cooking for these kids is important. We’re able to support these students and their families,” stated Beach. “Groceries are expensive, everything is expensive right now. If we’re able to minimize barriers to healthy eating, then we’re doing our job.”
Each of the school meal teams typically starts their days at around 6:00am to prepare breakfast and lunch. Each individual team then has others who support afternoon meal prep. In some cases, three meals per day are being prepared and served out of LNSU schools.
While each school shares a common menu, Beach explained that each school nutrition professional is able to bring their own experiences and their own expertise to their daily meal prep and their interaction with the students. “I’ve got 10 years of baking experience as a pastry chef, so when the breakfast menu calls for a scone or we’re doing garlic knots at lunch, those are both items I like to make from scratch.”
And the same personal touches happen across the LNSU community. “In Hyde Park, Donna Ferland has a daily joke she shares with the students, in Eden, Sue Herring takes veggies the kids grow in the garden and she pickles them for future meals,” explained Kent.
Lamoille North’s nutrition program is built upon several important pillars - local, farm-to-school partners, and a responsive staff.
Nearly 90% of Vermont schools purchase some local products. One hundred percent of Vermont farms are selling products to local schools and 81% of Vermont schools have school gardens, LNSU being no exception. These statistics come courtesy of the Vermont Farm to School and Early Childhood Network. It’s state partners and organizations like these that continue to help elevate school meals across the Green Mountain State.
Kent says LNSU has about eight contracts straight with local farmers and producers for different products. Apples from Cabot, dairy from local farmers, beef from area ranchers, and maple syrup from the students in the GMTCC Forestry Program. “Being able to tell our students that the foods they're eating are coming from this area, this state, this region - those are powerful messages,” said Kent. And just as important she says, is supporting local farmers, supporting Lamoille Valley’s agrarian history.
Lamoille North Supervisory Union is an active participant of the national Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, Kent and the district continue to search for new farm-to-school partners, and just recently began a Sea to School program through a mentorship with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, made possible by a USDA grant
And when it comes to a responsive staff, Beach and Kent echo that the needs of the students come first. “This isn’t just a meat and potatoes kind of nutrition program. We have vegetarians, we have vegan students, and we strive to offer meals that appeal to each one of the kids,” said Kent. Kent and her team work with school staff to stay up to date on student food allergies and are always looking to engage students in supporting their nutrition work. The creation of the nutrition program logo by the GMTCC’s Creative Media students as an example.
So what do community members, parents and non-parents, need to know about LNSU’s nutrition program? You need to know it’s more than prepping and serving food. It’s hours of credentialing, its paperwork to align with USDA federal rules, and its teaching students how to make healthy decisions.
“The cafeteria is the biggest classroom in a school,” explained Kent, “We’re teaching kids about a balanced meal, we’re teaching them about social graces, we’re helping them understand ways to reduce food waste and the proper ways to compost. The things to help them lead happy and healthy lives.”
So let us know if you need those kale or plantain recipes, we’re happy to share.