TOWNSHEND — Food service is a major focus for the West River Education District, which is participating in a program meant to expand its scratch-cooking offerings and improve its overall food operations.
“Ultimately, I just want to be able to give all the kids in our district the best food possible, and do it in a sustainable way that not only supports the local agriculture but supports the people working for me,” said Jacob Gallogly, food service director for the district.
Anneliese Tanner, executive director of school food operations at Chef Ann Foundation, described her group as a national nonprofit group working with school districts across the U.S. to support food service professionals with resources they need to do more scratch cooking with fresh ingredients and no preservatives. The Get Schools Cooking program provides participants with an assessment of their current operations.
“We look at food facilities, finance, human resources and marketing,” Tanner said, “and we come up with recommendations for scratch cooking.”
A planning process is aimed at implementing the recommendations. School districts then get technical assistance and professional development to move forward with achieving items in their strategic plans.
Participants receive a $35,000 Systems Assistance Grant, which the districts can use for implementing their strategic plans.
The program opens every 18 months. After launching the latest in August, the Chef Ann Foundation received 45 applications, the highest number to date.
Ultimately, seven were selected. Tanner said her group looks for districts with a commitment to scratch cooking that goes beyond food service directors to include stakeholders, such as administrators or the wider community.
Participants recently completed a two-and-a-half day workshop in at Bellingham School District in Washington. That district was in the first cohort to complete the program and demonstrated how it put recommendations in place.
“Our kids deserve to have freshly made meals that reflect their community,” Tanner said. “When you’re scratch cooking, the nutrition is better.”
Scratch cooking allows for more control over where the ingredients are coming from, Tanner said. More local foods can be incorporated into meals to “really create that local food system,” she added.
“Students who are nourished are able to learn,” she said, adding that there are studies indicating better nutrition and scratch cooking lead to academic success.
Tanner also noted how spending time making fresh food “sends a message,” showing students they are worth the energy and effort.
Gallogly represented the first school district from Vermont to participate in the program.
“We’re excited to be supporting him, since he’s a first-year food service director,” Tanner said. “We can provide him support and resources for professional development to bring the district toward the vision they have for more scratch cooking and more farm-to-school programming.”
Tanner said the planning process includes a lot of data collection. Her group looks at menus and meal counts, and interviews district staff.
At the beginning of the school year, a staff member from Food Connects brought the program to Gallogly’s attention. He didn’t expect to be one of the few selected.
His team serves food at Jamaica Village School, NewBrook Elementary, Townshend Elementary, Windham Elementary, and Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School. They “don’t have as great as resources as I’d like,” he said, as he’s been tied up cooking at the high school for now.
“I wanted to support them in their scratch cooking,” he said.
Former district Food Service Director Chris Parker “made a really great foundation,” Gallogly said. “Kids are used to not eating prepackaged food, which is awesome. During COVID, everything was up in the air, with supply chain issues. You just got whatever food you could.”
Gallogly is most interested in the professional development offered by the foundation. The group has “a lot of really smart people” working for it, he said. He called the workshop “really cool,” as he connected with other food service directors and foundation staff.
His plan is to give the kitchen at the high school “a little bit of a facelift” this summer and find other ways to improve food service for the district and pay structure/benefits for employees. Previously, he worked for Windham Northeast Supervisory Union. He praised its “great working environment.”