By Lindsay Arbuckle
Can you remember a meal when you actually tasted the love that went into its preparation? In Barstow Memorial School’s cafeteria this spring, I experienced one such meal.
I arrived at Barstow on a chilly spring morning. Entering the kitchen and cafeteria, I immediately felt warmth. Bright yellow walls and floral artwork spanned the space beyond freshly sliced potatoes. Chef Meggen Hanna welcomed me with a smile, introduced me to her friendly colleagues, Marissa Richardson and Sandy Gardyne, and got back to work preparing oven fries—simply potatoes, oil, and spices.
Chef Meg, an employee of food service provider The Abbey Group, is leading the way on farm-to-school cafeteria buying. Her recipes are being shared amongst The Abbey Group’s schools across Vermont to encourage more purchasing of local, fresh farm products.
Our farm, Alchemy Gardens, first interacted with Chef Meg when we sold her heirloom tomatoes last year. Meg then pickled our hot peppers to serve with the taco bar, and cooked our spaghetti squash in one of her signature dishes as an alternative to pasta.
I finally met Meg as a guest on her PEGTV show “Lunch Ladies Rule!” when she featured several area farmers and our produce. Her enthusiasm was obvious from the start. I wanted to hear more about her life path and how she ended up on the forefront of the farm-to-cafeteria movement that has been picking up steam in recent years.
Meg told me that she graduated from culinary school and spent years working in the restaurant industry. After questioning the food served to her sons in Rutland schools, she decided she wanted to do something about it. She was hired by The Abbey Group to cook at Barstow Memorial School in Chittenden, and set out to immediately eliminate as much processed food as possible. Pizza dough, breads, and muffins are now baked from scratch. Meatballs too. The list of made-from-scratch foods includes salad dressings and sauces, which are often much healthier when homemade. The food smells good and looks good, and the students get excited to eat it.
As the kids grow more adventurous in their eating, Meg trials new recipes using local fare, like pesto, asparagus, and turnip slaw with broccoli. There are four raised garden beds at Barstow now, providing fresh produce for the kitchen and a direct connection for students who get to harvest and eat the rewards of their labor. The cafeteria also has a light rack growing pea shoots and micro greens—baby vegetables cut just after their sprout stage. While I was there, a group of eighth graders tracked the growth of the greens, then harvested and handed them off to Meg, who will serve them with a sesame vinaigrette.
At Barstow, the students and staff speak very highly of Meg. Principal Karen Prescott raves about the high quality food and Meg’s advocacy for the students. “She truly cares,” Principal Prescott said. Even as budgets have gotten tighter, Meg has adapted and figured out ways to ensure health and success in Barstow’s students. Principal Prescott told me about a time that the kitchen staff sold homemade bread as a fundraiser to purchase a toaster.
As I walked indoors and out with her, to flip the hot dogs that she was grilling on a gas grill, I was thinking that this lady truly goes above and beyond. She encourages all students to use the salad bar, which I witnessed as a first grader filled his tray. She advocates for not using Styrofoam trays, which are used in many other local schools. And she cooks real food, which is entirely different from the microwaved-in-plastic junk food that is found in many cafeterias nationwide.
Another exciting program is Meg’s work with the kindergarteners at Barstow, who she meets with once a week for two 8-week sessions called “Culinary Workshop.” Meg cooks with the kids, building a rapport with them in their first year. She has found that they are more open to trying new things after learning first hand where food comes from and how it is prepared. Meg even has an 8th grade mentee, Emily Sullivan, who helps cook on Fridays, gaining first hand culinary skills and a powerful one-on-one connection with her as a mentor.
The day I visited Barstow, I ate a McKenzie hot dog, homemade sauerkraut, baked beans, French onion soup, oven fries, and a salad. It was a delicious meal on par with many local restaurants. As I sat with eighth graders, and then little first graders, I asked about their favorite meals and got a sense of their cafeteria experience. I heard about chocolate cake made with beets, and how yummy all of the food is.
As Meg expressed in an article that was published on celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution website: “Food is life. We feed our students well, believing, when you nourish your body properly, you learn better, behave better, feel better, and know you matter.” As countless staff and students came up to me to express their gratitude for Chef Meg and the kitchen staff, it was clear that this mantra is truly being put into action, every day, on the plates at Barstow’s cafeteria.
Lindsay Arbuckle & Scott Courcelle own Alchemy Gardens, a farm business growing vegetables and herbs in West Rutland. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.