A partnership between the Vermont Department of Health, the Healthy Roots Collaborative, and Fletcher Elementary School is promoting healthy lifestyles and social consciousness for Fletcher’s third graders and their families and is benefitting local food shelves at the same time.
Last spring, the three organizations began planning ways that students could explore key questions about sustainable farming and food production, nutrition, and strategies for helping food-insecure members of the community.
In late September, students visited the Jeffersonville-based West Farm, a 10-acre organic producer of wholesale herbs, fruits, and vegetables. Among the hospitals, schools, restaurants, stores and a local farmer-owned cooperative served by the farm, produce is also sold to The Abbey Group, which provides the foodservice program at Fletcher Elementary.
The purpose of the trip, according to Koi Boynton, co-coordinator and manager of the farm to school and gleaning programs for the Healthy Roots Collaborative, was to have students see farming life first hand and to gain an understanding of how the food they eat is being produced.
Additionally, Boynton said that students who meet food producers and help to harvest the food themselves are more likely to try the food once it reaches their table.
“We wanted students to marvel at the beauty and the bounty of farms like the West Farm, but also to get a glimpse of the hard work it takes. In this case, the West Farm is a farm that sells produce to The Abbey Group so the kids will see it in the school cafeteria and maybe tell their classmates, ‘we visited that farm and it was so great. Try the cabbage,’” Boynton said.
Founded in 2014, the Healthy Roots Collaborative aims to make connections between agriculture and health. The group works to address food access, nutrition education and agriculture development through education and services for both producers and consumers.
Leading up to the trip, students participated in discussions about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, a collection of 17 goals created by global leaders to make the world a better place by the year 2030. Topics range from ending poverty and hunger to good health and environmental responsibility.
“Before we went to the farm our students held focused conversations about several of the Global Goals,” third-grade teacher Tracey Godin said. “ Even though the trip was local, we wanted the students to understand that their learning and problem-solving contributes to a much larger solution in the state, country, and world.”
Students’ discussions emphasized goals related to life on land, responsible consumption and production, sustainable cities and communities, reduced inequalities, good health and well-being, and eliminating hunger. Students took posters of the goals with them to the farm to promote continued conversation on-site.
“Some of our students were already aware of the issues surrounding these goals,” Godin said, “and others were not. Part of supporting students in being innovative problem-solvers is to help them both identify an issue and thoroughly understand it before they set out to create a solution.”
“Farm to school is a major component of our work because we know that we need to educate the consumers of tomorrow to care about how their food is produced and where it comes from,” Boynton said. “We also know that kids can have a great impact on their families as well. We have heard the story over and over again that after a school taste test, kids will be in the grocery store and ask their parents to get that kale or cabbage.”
At the farm, students harvested a variety of vegetables. Much of the cabbage and most of the squash harvested by students was donated to Northwest Family Foods, a food shelf program serving Franklin and Grand Isle Counties, as well as Martha’s Kitchen, a St. Albans-based soup kitchen that provides daily meals to those in need. The Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi Food Shelf also benefited from the harvest.
Food that was not donated was used as part of an evening cooking class held at the school and taught by Rachel Huff, farm to school coordinator for the Healthy Roots Collaborative, and Rachel Gregory, a registered dietitian and public health nutritionist with the Vermont Department of Health. While the duo teaches a variety of cooking classes, Fletcher’s was the first to bring both parents and students together to share in the experience.
“Students need to be guided and supported as they learn to try new foods and feel comfortable making healthy food choices,” Huff said. “Learning to eat well and prepare healthy food that contributes to a sustainable food system requires extra educational effort that is not written into our school curricula nor our health care protocol. Healthy Roots strives to fill in some of that gap.”
Students and their families cooked six recipes using produce harvested from West Farm, three using cabbage and three using squash, and then ate family style, sampling the dishes they had produced and reviewing nutritional information. Participants also engaged in several activities around food and nutrition.
“Our students were able to see multiple, very different ways to prepare the same produce,” Godin said. “They learned that if you don’t care for a vegetable cooked one way, there are lots of alternatives that you might enjoy. They also learned that some recipes include cooking and some do not, as well as how to use a variety of kitchen tools and procedures. These are life skills.”
“There is a tremendous amount of marketing and advertising out in the world encouraging consumers to buy highly processed, packaged, and not always very healthy food. Connecting students, their teacher, and families to local farmers contribute to our educational effort,” Huff said. “The Healthy Roots Collaborative finds its greatest successes in the partnerships we create between eaters and growers in our region. Establishing these links on every level we can find furthers our mission to envision a healthy Northwest Vermont with a community rooted in a strong agricultural economy with thriving farms, where all are connected to and nourished by local farms and food.”
“The partnership between the Vermont Department of Health and the Healthy Roots Collaborative is critical because our goal is to create local food champions,” Boynton said. “As a small part-time staff, we don’t have the capacity to reach every school and every community. We need partners like the Vermont Department of Health to carry on the work with us.”
“People need to eat and cook together,” Boynton said. “Beyond the nutritional value, it is a family and community value that we need to see in order to build bonds and personal wellness. As a society, we need to regain our cooking skills and take time to be together. The cooking class gave us the opportunity to put those values into play with real families. It has been proven that when people sit down and eat together they come to consensus more quickly and that consensus building comes even faster when people eat family style. We need to build family and community bonds. And, just like meeting the farmer, when kids cook the food they are more likely to eat the food.”
According to Huff, providing cooking classes to students and families together is particularly satisfying because students are often more brave than their parents about trying new foods or being open to new, healthy choices.
“Students are used to being in a learning environment every day,” Huff said. “When a parent might be hesitant to sign up for a class on their own they are more likely to join in with their child. In these moments, the students become the leaders and not only encourage their parents towards healthier foods but practice the very important work of becoming a leader for tomorrow.”
“Different foods can make such good meals. I was surprised how you could use winter squash to make soup. And the roasted winter squash was delicious. After the cooking class, I made the chickpea salad at home and it was delicious,” third-grader Cailin Macaulay said. “It makes my heart feel good to know that some of our harvest also went to people that are hungry. It was so easy for us to do but it really helped out other people. I never really knew how important good food is to everyone until I learned that some people don’t have enough.”
Of his trip to the farm, third-grader Harrison Frennier said, “I learned that you need a lot of skill to farm and to harvest things. I was very happy that I actually got to meet the farmer that grows things and learn about how he works and takes care of the earth.”
“It was really fun to pick the pumpkins and squash and get the cabbage boxed up. I learned that after the whole harvest goes by you can still go to a farm because there is still food in the fields that can be used and should not go to waste,” third-grader Addie Gillilan said. “It was interesting to meet the farmer because I learned a lot about how he runs his business.”
“Seeing the entire process from growing the produce to harvesting and preparing it to bring the learning full circle for our students,” Godin said. “And donating a portion of the harvest helps them to understand that in addition to their own learning they are contributing to others.”
“I think this cooking class was important because we learned about the sustainability of our food and that there are many ways to prepare it,” parent Deedra Austin said. “It’s good to try new foods. Growing up I never ate anything with cabbage and now I have cabbage recipes I will actually eat. It’s also important for any child to learn where food is coming from and how to take care of the planet. It’s good to try new foods and to know the process it takes to go from ground to table.”
Fletcher Elementary’s Parent Engagement Plan includes a second cooking and nutrition class scheduled for the coming weeks. It will emphasize using healthy, local food to pack creative kid-friendly lunches.