PUTNEY >> Mens sano in corpore sana, a Latin phrase often translated as "a healthy mind in a healthy body," sums up Putney Central School's approach to nutrition and learning.
Herve Pelletier, principal at PCS, which serves students from pre-K through grade 8, has received the 2015 Child Nutrition Administrative Leadership Award from the School Nutrition Association of Vermont and was named 2015 Layperson of the Year by the Vermont Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance.
In the letter notifying him of the leadership award, the SNA said, "Your actions clearly express your understanding that 'school meals nourish the common core' of each and every student."
The school's farm-to-table program, an in-house-run food service, is the result of about three years' work and study by dedicated groups of people, Pelletier said. This fall PCS hired Nathan Drake as food service director and lead chef.
"We wanted more control of our food destiny," Pelletier said. "It's the teaming that takes place on all these initiatives that makes it work: the PCS board; parents; teachers; Richard Berkfield and Helen Rortvedt from Food Connects—there are far too many to acknowledge appropriately."
Operating the nutrition program in-house allows for a far more robust nutritional education program in several ways, Pelletier said, from hiring as many local vendors as possible, to food tastings, to using food from the school garden.
"For example, we harvested 100 pounds of potatoes one morning, and they were used that day in lunch," he said. "We want kids to understand where their food comes from, and we want to show them they can exercise control over what and how they eat. With the Farm-to-School grant we received, we bought a walk-in freezer. We hope to expand the school garden so we can grow quantities and freeze the produce for later use instead of having to buy out of the area."
In her letter nominating Pelletier for the SNA award, Alice Laughlin, chair of the PCS board, said having its own meal program has "dramatically changed the school's food culture lunch (is) served 'family style' where students and adults sit around round tables and enjoy their food and conversation. Breakfast is now served in the classroom after the bell, and the meal count jumped for seven breakfasts eaten a day to 100!"
"We first tried a 'brown bag' breakfast in some test classrooms," Pelletier said. "Response was good. Now breakfast is served family style from carts. We offer bagels, fruit, pancakes—always milk in pitchers, one-percent and fat-free. It's been awesome. In concert with that, we offer an afterschool snack, what we call a 'light supper.' If you swing by the kitchen at 3:15, you might find a turkey roll-up made with turkey that Nathan has roasted and carved, and some kale and red peppers and dressing. And always some fruit."
The Vermont Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance recognized Pelletier for his contributions to students' physical exercise via the PCS bicycle program.
"This area has a rich history of cycling," Pelletier said, "and we wanted to honor that. We have a 175-acre campus here, and 162 acres of it are forest, and bike-and-foot trails. It's an opportunity to get kids out on bikes. About six or seven years ago, Pip Bannister, a retired architect who now works at the West Hill Shop, started a mountain bike club one afternoon a week in fall and spring. Students who didn't have a working bike couldn't participate. We decided that it was the school's place to support this effort directly by giving students access to bikes at school."
Jim and Diny Sweitzer at West Hill Shop developed a plan to do a bulk buy of 12 or so bikes of varying sizes, Pelletier continued. The proceeds from the 2014 PCS Lantern Supper — about $2,500 — were dedicated to the "bike library."
"That generated a lot of buzz," he said, "and bikes started showing up. Now we have about 27 bikes. Matt Bristol, our physical education teacher, has been instrumental in developing this program. Students can ride before school, at recess during lunch, and Thursday afternoons from 3 to 5 p.m. The school has a pump track and a mountain bike skills course. Next, we're planning to teach basic bike maintenance."
Bristol and Pelletier made a presentation on the bike program at the VTAHPERD conference at Killington Mountain Resort on Nov. 12.
"Kids have learned how to ride a bike because of this program," Pelletier said. "Matt takes the second graders out during lunch on Tuesdays. He was collecting video footage for our presentation. He was holding the camera with one hand, and you could see he had his other hand on the seat of the bicycle. Then he let go of the seat, and the student rode 25 or 30 feet, shouting, 'I'm doin' it! I'm doin' it!'"
The nutrition and exercise programs are pieces of a much larger tapestry, Pelletier said.
"All the latest research on the brain shows that in order for students to be fully available for learning, they have to have access to exercise and healthy food," he said. "We—and when I say 'we,' I mean teachers, parents, and school board—want kids to adopt skills and positive attitudes toward exercise, food, and nutrition. Our vision is to make school as comprehensive as possible in terms of wellness.
"You notice I've said no word about test scores or curriculum," he continued. Of course, we work to improve those, but I won't tell kids they can't have recess. If you have a healthy school, those things come along. We want students to have a solid educational background in traditional subjects, but we want them to have the resilience to be able to adapt successfully to any environment they find themselves in."