VERMONT - In Vermont, 21,000 schoolchildren get most of their daily nutrition served to them on a tray in the lunchroom. And, though their communities may preach good eating habits, the proof is in the pudding. That idea is the cornerstone of Act 145, a new state law that just granted $125,000 to schools looking to beef up their nutrition education and use more local food.
Woodstock Union is the recipient of one such "Farm to School" grant. Health teacher Tavi Brandenburg learned about the program while reading "Linking Health and Learning," an electronic newsletter published by the Vermont Department of Education. "I just thought it sounded like something we should do," she says.
Woodstock was awarded $12,280, based on a grant application that was a community effort. Brandenburg sought input from Kevin Channel, a school maintenance worker with his own organic farm, music teacher Michael Zsoldos, townspeople and students who had already started a Localvore Club (as in omnivore, but for locally grown food).
Brandenburg says Woodstock hopes to accomplish its goal of a 15 percent increase in foods purchased directly from area producers by running field trips to nearby farms, taste-testing new recipes, marketing local foods in the cafeteria, and hosting a harvest dinner next fall.
Woodstock is one of the latest schools to join a trend that can be traced back to the Burlington School Food Project. That effort began in 2003 with a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant designed to encourage interaction between schools, farms and the city at large. The legislature caught on in 2006, when it declared it "important to encourage children to eat a healthy diet of fresh food at school."
The Farm to School grant program is off to a salubrious start, judging by the number of applications. In the program's first year, 63 schools requested more than $664,000 in funds. Twelve of those had an especially happy New Year, receiving individual grants that ranged from $5050 for the Salisbury Community School to $14,444 for Jay Westfield Elementary.
The organization Vermont Food Education Every Day played a significant role in the passing of Act 145. More commonly known by its acronym, VT FEED, the group is a nonprofit partnership of Shelburne Farms, Montpelier's Food Works hands-on agricultural education center, and the Northeast Organic Farming Association. The organization's mission, explains Director Dana Hudson, is to change the state's school food system by connecting farmers, school food services, teachers and students. "For success to sustain," she sums it up, "you have to connect the three Cs: cafeteria, classroom and community."
In the past year, VT FEED has collaborated with more than 60 schools, helping them with applying for grants, identifying farmers, and teaching school personnel to implement and maintain local food programs themselves. Hudson notes that a chronic challenge is the "misperception that kids don't like vegetables. That's totally not true." Another common conception is that local food is not financially feasible. "But," she insists, "it works fine in the school budget."
In fact, Woodstock calculates that buying local produce in season will cost nearly $300 less than trucking it in from afar.
Currently, school food purchases represent only 0.5 percent of the total sales of produce grown by Vermont farmers. However, "there's a pretty impressive amount of enthusiasm about this," Hudson says. In response to it, VT FEED is hosting regional workshops - free to farmers and food service workers - that show schools how to connect better with local food sources. For more information, visit http://www.vtfeed.org  or http://www.farmtoschool.org .