Leland & Gray strengthens farm to school connection

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Thanks to the Student Council at Leland & Gray, three times as many students are eating breakfast now than at the start of the school year. This increase came as result of the work done by Leland & Gray's Food Service Advisory Committee, led by school nurse, Sara Dunbar.

Leland & Gray was one of just a few Windham County schools to see an increase in meal participation last year, both at breakfast and lunchtime.

However, breakfast participation was still relatively low with less than half of students choosing to eat breakfast before school. In an attempt to increase participation, the Student Council came forward with a suggestion — serve breakfast during the eight-minute break between students' first and second classes.

The Abbey Group, the food service management company for Leland & Gray, decided that a traveling food cart would do the trick. Staff members prepare breakfast in the kitchen, load the items onto a traveling cart and set up shop in the hallway so that students can get breakfast on their way to their next class. The result? Participation has more than tripled.

While the school is not explicitly participating in the Vermont Breakfast After the Bell Challenge, the results they're seeing are in line with what schools have seen across the state and nation. Kids just aren't ready to eat breakfast early in the morning, but by 9:30 a.m., you bet their bellies are grumbling.

Superintendent, Bill Anton is excited to see more kids participating in the meal program. "I am very proud that Leland & Gray has taken the lead in getting our students fed.

Their creative response and their active partnership with the Abbey Group has led to tripling the amount of breakfasts being consumed. A healthy and satisfied student is a student ready to learn. I applaud our Food Service Advisory Committee leading the way. I am eager to see what creative strategy they come up with next."

Not only is the school collaborating with the Abbey Group to increase meal participation, administrators are also looking to scale up their farm to school efforts. Food Service Director, Kelly Wojcik, found time this fall to reconnect with Food Connects, an entrepreneurial non-profit that delivers locally produced food as well as educational and consulting services aimed at transforming local food systems. Kelly and her staff, Carol, Kendra and Heather, have committed to incorporating local products on their menu this year.

October's menu featured the Vermont "harvest of the month," kale, as well as Vermont apples, potatoes, corn, root vegetables, and of course, cheese.

"Feeding students a good Breakfast and Lunch is our main goal," said Wojcik. "Here at Leland we take pride in knowing that we make homemade meals using as much local product as possible.

We have an amazing fruit and veggie bar, freshly made pizzas using King Arthur White Wheat flour cooked in a stone oven, great selections of grab-and-go meals, mouth watering fruit and yogurt parfaits.

Combine that with our warm and friendly staff we are creating fresh local home cooked meals. With full bellies the students have the fuel needed to have a successful learning experience."

In the past few years, Leland & Gray has taken strides to bring farm and food education to its students, including the creation of a school garden and composting program.

Garden produce has been donated to the cafeteria and the Jr. Iron Chef Program. By serving local products to students, the school reinforces this learning in the cafeteria, improves meal quality and will likely see a further increase in meal participation.

The school has taken one other significant step towards reducing hunger this fall. With the support of the Stratton Foundation, Sara Dunbar, school nurse, has created a school-based food shelf. This space, which includes a refrigerator and freezer, provides students and families the chance to fill a bag with food for the evening or the weekend.

The food shelf is currently being stocked with donations from staff, community members and the Townshend Food Shelf. The food shelf also includes fresh food — this week features a box of local butternut squash.

"Sara (Dunbar) took a lot of initiative to get this up and running," said Principal Bob Thibault. "It's a really great addition to our school. We're hoping to pair the initiative that LEAF [Leland & Gray Environmental Action Force] has taken with our school garden with the new food shelf to provide produce from our school garden to our families."

The school garden is coordinated by art teacher Stephanie Nyzio.

Kate Venne is the Farm To School Program Manager for Food Connects. She can be contacted at kate@FoodConnects.org.

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