By. Christine Gall, Garden Education Coordinator, Burlington School Food Project
At its core, the Burlington School Food Project (BSFP) is like many school food service programs across the country: its primary objective is to feed students. BSFP provides meals to nearly 4,000 students in the Burlington School District and in its own words “connects students and their families with whole, fresh, and local foods to improve student learning and health of our community.” Meal service is offered 177 days during the school calendar year and an additional 39 days during the summer months. These summer meals, as well as breakfast and supper during the school year, are offered at no cost to students, while five of the nine schools in the district offer free lunches.
But BSFP is much more than your typical food service program. It is a nationally recognized farm to school model, largely thanks to the efforts of Food Service Director Doug Davis who has been with the program since 1997. Under his guidance, the district hired the first Farm to School Coordinator in the country back in 2006. This position has since been replaced by two separate positions—Food Education Manager and Garden Education Coordinator—to facilitate food- and garden-based learning opportunities across the district.
“At this point we don’t have that traditional Farm to School Coordinator who focuses on getting local product into schools. Sourcing locally is simply engrained in the fabric of our general procurement practices,” Davis explains. Indeed, 20% of BSFP’s total food costs goes directly toward local producers and growers. “It gives us the freedom to have staff that can focus on connecting with students—on the school gardens and educational aspects.”
Which is where Garden Education Coordinator Christine Gall comes in. While almost all schools across the district have gardens of various sizes (including some that contribute produce to their cafeterias), BSFP only manages those at Burlington High School (BHS) and Hunt Middle School. Both are large production gardens that are maintained by Gall and the students she works with.
“Part of my role with BSFP is to interface with classrooms and teachers interested in making connections to the garden. I might get an email from a teacher who’s looking to create a concrete link between a topic they’re covering in class and their school garden, in which case I often visit that class to facilitate an activity for the students,” says Gall. “Other times a class might just come to the garden to tackle a project with me. At Hunt Middle School we’ve had great success coordinating all day Garden Kick-Off events where class after class comes out to help prepare the garden for the growing season or put the garden to bed in the fall.”
But Gall is not the only one in the district teaching students about food and gardening. At BHS, teacher Richard Meyer has been running a Food Science class for the past few years. During the growing season, Meyer and his students often work with Gall in the gardens and greenhouse at BHS. In the fall, students harvest fresh produce to make salsa or pasta sauce. Come spring, they plant flats of starts that are then distributed to school gardens across the district. “Students are taught the whole process from seed to harvest. They learn how to grow the veggies, take care of them, and then either harvest for food or preserve them for later use,” Meyer observes. “Many of the students do not grow any plants at home nor do they do much cooking. This class gives them a taste of both; it presents the education of the most basic of needs we humans must learn more about, instead of buying everything in a box or can.”
And right next door at Burlington Technical Center, Cheryl Niedzwiecki heads up the Culinary Arts program. A program which, according to Niedzwiecki, allows students the “opportunity to explore a possible career in the food service industry.” Throughout the year, students enrolled in the course engage in various aspects of the service industry, from mastering basic knife skills and gaining an understanding of food safety practices to managing the Champlain Café, a small restaurant at the high school. The program functions independently of BSFP, but is yet another example of how food-based learning is integrated into the wider learning that takes place across the district.
In fact, food- and garden-based educational opportunities extend beyond the school year. During the summer, Food Education Manager Sarah Heusner oversees BSFP’s flagship educational program, the Fork in the Road food truck, in which students from the high school are hired to work vending and catering events throughout Burlington for the duration of the summer. “It’s a mentorship through food program,” says Heusner, referring to the fact that students also participate in resume and cover letter writing workshops, practice mock interviews, and visit local businesses to learn about the ins and outs of the food service industry. On top of that, students spend a few hours each week working in various school gardens, helping to maintain these bountiful growing spaces and harvest produce for use on the food truck.
Farm to school activities are just as robust at the elementary school level and are largely organized by Outdoor or Garden Committees comprised of invested teachers and parents dedicated to organizing garden celebrations and planning summer maintenance schedules. At Champlain Elementary School, a parent from the school worked for nearly two years to acquire a custom built mobile cooking cart that any classroom can use, at any time. The school has pursued hosting interns from the nearby University of Vermont to help support teachers interested in garden connections. And for the past three years, the school has organized a giant Harvest Festival for the local community, an event that includes activities such as making flavored lemonade with mint from the garden or cooking up wood-fired pizza with garden-fresh ingredients.
Champlain’s Outdoor Committee meets for an hour after school every few weeks to discuss how they can improve their growing spaces, plan garden-based activities, and encourage teachers to feel comfortable bringing their students outside. Gall sits in on these meetings, and attends garden gatherings at other schools, providing guidance and resources. “Each school is different, so naturally every school garden is different, from how it’s used by teachers to how it’s maintained,” observes Gall. “It’s a question of finding which systems works best in a given setting, in a given community. There’s no set formula, but it does take dedication and creativity.”
About the Author
Since 2010, Christine Gall has immersed herself in the world of agriculture and food-based learning, from farming in southern Vermont to cooking with elementary-aged youth in Mid-Coast Maine. She currently divides her time between the Burlington School Food Project, where she helps oversee school garden management and educational outreach efforts to classrooms throughout the Burlington School District, and KidsGardening.org, a national nonprofit dedicated to creating opportunities for students to learn and grow through gardening. Her combined role with these two organizations serves to better connect youth to gardens and food systems at the local and national level.