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67 Merchants Row
Rutland, VT, 05701
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Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL) promotes local food knowledge, production and market opportunities for farmers and community members throughout our region.

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Gardens: Great for Eating and Educating

Phil Gurley

By Kimberly Griffin

Lothrop students making kale salad.

Lothrop students making kale salad.

Take a moment and think about what you are having for lunch today. Picture each ingredient. Now picture each of those ingredients in its rawest form. How many steps do you have to count backwards to turn today’s lunch into a plant or animal? Into a seed?

Now think about what your kids are eating for lunch today.  If your kids are eating a school-prepared lunch, let’s follow that little meal back to its origins – from lunch tray to service line to kitchen. Stop. Look around the kitchen. Is it equipped for cooking and preparing raw foods? Or are the foods from this kitchen simply thawed-out and warmed-up? Do the mashed potatoes start their day in this kitchen as potatoes or as a box of powder? Is there any fruit or fresh veggies in the walk-in fridge?

Depending on where your child goes to school, this virtual tour varies, but many of today’s school kitchens are ill-equipped for cooking. Budgets, time, skilled labor, and nutritional education have greatly influenced the landscape of school kitchens – not to mention tastes. Kids aren’t necessarily getting whole (minimally processed) foods at home, either. So even if it were offered at school, they would likely turn up a nose at the unfamiliar sweet potato or bell pepper. The Farm to School initiative, through Vermont FEED (Food Education Every Day), along with a growing number of schools in the state, are working to change all of that; to develop food knowledge in the cafeteria, in the classroom, in the garden and at home.

In order for students to make informed decisions about what they eat, they need exposure. That means exposure to the heat and scent of decaying organic matter of compost; to the fields and barns filled with animals for meat and milk; to the warmth of greenhouses that protect over-wintered crops; to the rows upon rows of foods in their natural habitat – tomatoes on vines, beans in bushes, carrots hidden in the dirt like treasure. In order for our children to fully grasp what they are eating, they need to spend time on the farm, whether that farm requires a bus ride or a walk to the recess fields.

The Lothrop School in Pittsford is one school exposing students to food, both in and out of the cafeteria. Last year, with help from a grant from the Bowse Health Trust, educator Laura MacLachlan started a composting system to reduce the amount of food in the school’s waste stream. Then, she started a small garden to put the compost to use and increase the amount of fresh food in the digestive stream. Now gearing up for a second season, we chatted about some of the great things happening at Lothrop around good food.

Laura is quick to point out that she has a lot of support, making integrating fresh food and gardening into education a little easier. The kitchen staff, managed by the Abby Group, is certainly into it. Lothrop’s chefs offer up taste tests of different veggie-rich recipes, allow students to take over the kitchen when it’s time to peel or chop or bake something from the garden, and are working to make meals guided by the New School Cuisine cookbook.  And teachers are into it. When a bounty of sweet potatoes was harvested last fall, lessons were developed around it – including weighing, chopping, counting, graphing, and writing recipes. Even the physical education department is into it. There are talks of creating an ‘edible track’ on campus, allowing students to snack on berries, carrots, kale, and more, while walking along the track as a pre-class warm-up.

RAFFL is currently working with Lothrop and other schools to develop a model of small buying clubs wherein community members can purchase fresh and local produce right at schools. Last fall, Lothrop set up a “farm store” distribution center for a number of local farms. Produce was dropped off, then counted, sorted, weighed, and readied for pick-up by faculty and families.

Another off-campus asset for Laura is the Foxcroft Farm Harvest Program. Through different programs, students develop life skills while exploring a working farm. Younger students spend time learning on the farm through the “Growing to Know” project and older students find opportunities with the “Growing to Work” project. One such opportunity presented itself when Laura needed raised beds built at Lothrop. Some Growing to Work students built the beds, filled them with compost from the farm, and prepped them for planting. With these new beds, this year’s sweet potato harvest could be even greater.

As the growing season approaches, there are a couple of Farm to School events that I encourage any farmers, gardeners, and eaters big and small to attend:

ACORN’s fifth annual Stone Soup Summit at Middlebury College is Thursday, March 27. There will be TED-style talks, lots of interesting workshops, and a local food lunch. For more information, contact Lea Calderon-Guthe at acftsn@acornvt.org

Lothrop School is hosting a Honeybee High Tea, which is a farm and field day celebrating the little pollinators the students have been studying all year, May 30th. Any farmers or gardeners interested in sharing their skills, please contact Laura MacLachlan at lmaclachlan@rnesu.org

Kimberly Griffin is currently working with the College of Saint Joseph to develop an on-campus farm for educational and edible use. She can be reached at kimberly.griffin@csj.edu

Originally published in the Rutland Herald.