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Vermont is caught in a catch-22. While some families and teachers have serious health concerns about students going back to school, other parents don't know how to make it work without the essential child care school provides.

A few weeks ago, Governor Scott announced that school reopenings will be delayed until September 8. Across the state, districts have created reopening plans in a patchwork response — ensuring that going back to school will look very different for families, students, and teachers. At Food Connects, the Farm to School (FTS) program is continuing to support schools and thinking of creative solutions to the realities brought on by COVID-19.

We're always wary of adding more to teachers' plates, preferring to find areas of overlap or lessons that can be enhanced through an experiential, FTS lens. This is true now more than ever for our team. It's going to take a whole-community response to successfully reopen our schools and ensure the safety of our students and school staff. We see a part of that response as leveraging the work done by Food Connects and the VT FTS Network in integrating outdoor, place-based instruction into the school day.

Interest in gardens nationwide spiked this past spring and our FTS teams across the region worked diligently to ensure that their school-based gardens would be bountiful and in bloom this fall. These spaces provide countless opportunities for classes to get outside, spread out, and dive into cross-disciplinary lessons.

The need for more outdoor learning is bringing new schools and classrooms into the world of Farm to School, which has already established curriculums, lessons, and activities that are ready to be implemented. Forest schools and long-standing FTS programs have experience bringing students outside in different weather conditions and know how to adapt spaces cheaply to create weather-protected outdoor classrooms.

In addition to questions over logistics, there are concerns regarding the social and emotional effects the pandemic has on students — whether that is from decreased stability at home, heightened food insecurity, or generalized anxiety of the moment. Food Connects continues to champion the connection between FTS and trauma-sensitive responses in schools. Increased sensitivity to food-related trauma, the therapeutic nature of gardening with students, and the opportunities FTS programming provides students to build greater resilience will all be crucial in this coming year.

School meals haven't stopped since the pandemic started. From meal delivery via buses straight into an adapted summer food service program, school nutrition professionals continue to work tirelessly to feed their communities. Farm to School organizations like Food Connects help make that work easier by helping Food Service Directors (FSDs) submit equipment grants, creating new food relief programs in partnership with schools and food shelves, and collaborating on meal enrollment campaigns and implementing new engagement strategies. We see our unique role as the regional support organization for school nutrition programs as crucial for this coming year.

School is going to be different this coming year and difficult for every community. It's going to require a truly collaborative effort to make the experience safe and engaging for students — who have been without the social and emotional support schools and peers provide for over six months. Food Connects is grateful to be in the position to support schools as they navigate these trying times.

Conor Floyd is the Farm to School program manager at Food Connects, where he supports increased local purchasing, school meal participation, and food, farm, and nutrition education in Windham County schools. Food Connects is an entrepreneurial non-profit that delivers locally produced food as well as educational and consulting services aimed at transforming local food systems. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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