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A team of five cooks up fresh meals for the students at Bellows Falls Union High School.

WESTMINSTER — Harley Sterling sees it this way: you wouldn’t not put oil in your new $100,000 car. Likewise, Vermont school kids need a nutritious breakfast and lunch to keep their engines running.

Sterling, 38, is the director of nutrition for the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union’s food service program and he was recently honored with the School Nutrition Association of Vermont's “Innovation and Advocacy Award.” He was nominated for the award by staff at Food Connects.

Sterling has been the district’s nutrition director since 2018, ever since Windham Northeast decided to run its own school food program, rather than contract it out to one of the large food service companies in the region. Before that, Sterling ran the independent food service program at the Westminster Center School, emphasizing local fresh food. He worked hard for the change.

The Keene, N.H., native is passionate about food and about kids getting the food they need.

He views the kitchen at the Bellows Falls Union High School and the other kitchens at the six different schools in the district as supportive places for students, where something good to eat can turn their day around.

He wants kids to come and feed their minds, as well as their bodies.

Jaxon Clark, 15, of Bellows Falls, couldn’t agree more. Clark, a sophomore at the high school, said the food is great. He was in middle school when the school district made the switch to local food, and it was a big improvement, he said.

Clark said he often gets lunch at the school, and sometimes breakfast.

And, Clark said, in addition to the food, such as yogurt, smoothies and granola bars, the staff plays cool music. “And they’re always there to talk to the students,” he said.

Sterling was at the Vermont State House last week, testifying before two House money committees to support state funding for continuing the COVID-19 free school lunch (and breakfast) for all.

During an interview Wednesday at the Bellows Falls Union High School kitchen and cafeteria, Sterling said he came away discouraged, but still hopeful the program which he has seen create so much good will continue. The estimated cost? $29 million to provide Vermont’s school kids with free breakfast and lunch. Federal COVID funds have been paying the bill for the past two years, he said, and the number of meals served in the schools has doubled.

Since COVID changed the school lunch landscape, Sterling, a University of Vermont graduate with a degree in psychology and biology, thinks that schools should provide food to all children, regardless of their family’s finances.

“We don’t require them to pay for a school bus ride. We don’t require them to pay for their school books, depending on how much their parents make,” he said.

Sterling came to food service via the restaurant business, as do most of his crew in the kitchen who do the preparation and cooking.

It falls to Sterling to do the planning, negotiating, menu planning and strategic work — from how much each meal costs, where to get the best ingredients, and what will kids eat?

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Wednesday is usually pizza day, he said, and it’s the cheapest — and almost the most popular — thing on the monthly menu.

While the yeasted crust is made from scratch in the schools’ kitchens, the sauce and cheese (with a few toppings in the high school cafeteria) are a bargain compared to some meals, such as the meatball subs that were on the menu last Wednesday. Pizza was moved to Thursday, he said, because Wednesday was an early release day, with most students heading home right after lunch.

Such are the decisions that Sterling has to consider in drawing up a menu and keeping the budget in balance.

Rockingham School Director Christopher Kibbe, who was WNESU superintendent in 2018, was instrumental in the changeover to a locally run food program.

“In the spring of 2018 we were approaching the end of a so called break-even contract with one of the commercial food services. Due to a variety of circumstances, that contract was not really working out for either the district or the company. Faced with what would assuredly be a major increase in district costs if a new contract was entered into, (former business manager) Edie Cole and I began to draft a business model for an in-house program,” Kibbe wrote in an email.

“We were in luck, because Westminster (which had an in-house program all along) had hired Harley to run their program a couple of years previously. The food in Westminster was very different than what was being served elsewhere in the district (it was yummy),” he added.

“I had gotten to know Harley and his work and I felt that he had both the skills and management capabilities to run a program for the entire SU,” Kibbe explained. “So, working with Harley, we developed a plan that incorporated his vision of tasty, interesting food, often from local sources, and a work environment with pay and benefits that would attract and retain professional culinary staff in our kitchens.

“It was a risk, of course, because you have to sell a lot meals to staff and students in order to make any food program work, but the fact was that it was going to cost a lot more money just to have the same old food for students going forward, so why not take a chance and have great food?

“It was a good collaborative effort on everyone’s part and I am proud of Harley and his staff for making it such a smashing success,” Kibbe said.

It’s been an extreme roller coaster ever since Vermont schools closed their doors in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While others stayed home, Sterling and his staff came in to work every day to make sure the 1,000 students in the district were fed, one way or another.

Keeping on top of the various state and federal regulations was an enormous challenge, he said. What was okay the first year of the pandemic was not funded in the second. The schools were closed in March 2020, and then reopened in a “hybrid” schedule in September. Keeping up with the number of students, and health concerns, kept him sleepless, Kibbe said.

He said the COVID-19 money from state and federal programs was a godsend, and allowed the schools to update their kitchens, as well as replace furniture in the schools’ cafeterias. Each school in the district, with the exception of Grafton, has its own full kitchen and staff.

The new round tables at the BFUHS cafeterias, for example, were designed to enforced ‘social distancing,’ he said. Also, a 10-burner commercial Garland stove, which dated back to 1971 when the high school first opened, was replaced. Even gadgets such as a pancake batter dispenser, which allows the kitchen staff to make hundreds of pancakes for breakfast — or lunch — at a time, were a big help.

“Harley and his team are huge assets to our students. Harley’s passion is transferred to his staff. The pride they take in preparing nutritious quality food is evident. In conversations, Harley does not refer to his program as Food Service, but as Nutrition,” WNESU Superintendent Andrew Haas said.

“He adamantly equates what he and his staff do to what teachers do in the classroom; they are part of the overall curriculum we provide to our students.”

“We have found that during the pandemic when meals were available to all, more students were benefiting. The need is much greater than we ever expected. We are looking at whatever we can do to continue to be able to provide meals to any student and hope the state and/or federal government will continue to support this effort,” Haas said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.