Farm-to-school program growing at CVU

Food Service Manager Leo Laforce with Colleen French in front of the school garden greenhouse. The new plan calls for hoop houses and a larger garden.
Food Service Manager Leo Laforce with Colleen French in front of the school garden greenhouse. The new plan calls for hoop houses and a larger garden.
By Victoria Tamas, Contributing Writer

Last month, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture awarded the Champlain Valley Union High School a Farm-to-School planning grant of $2,500 as part of a $70,000 total awarded to ten schools around Vermont. The grant program, in its ninth year, has so far reached 101 schools, impacting 27,000 students.

What is Farm-to-School (FTS)? The meaning is growing all the time. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture (VAA) states that the program “enables Vermont schools to engage students in their local food system by incorporating local food and farm education in their cafeterias, classrooms and communities.” Although “farm-to-school” as a phrase still carries a connotation similar to “farm-to-plate,” the endeavor has gone well beyond the mission of making cafeteria food healthy. At the high school level, the program can nurture meaningful curriculum innovation.

CVU has been a model of innovation before, and already boasts a strong cafeteria garden program with Cafe Manager Leo Laforce at the helm. Mr. Laforce, in his 4th decade as a food service management professional, has overseen CVU’s café program for twelve years, placing priority on local sourcing and inviting fresh food options, all within cost constraints. “In twelve years, the price of lunch has gone from $2.25 to $2.75,” LaForce said.

He also must comply with USDA regulations such as the “Smart Snack” guidelines that went into effect last year, when students noticed that cookies were discontinued for a time. After a “bring back the cookies” protest, cookies appeared again, “but not the same ones as before [the whole-grain requirement],” notes Laforce. “These cookies meet the regs, but we don’t sell nearly as many. It used to be 200-300 a day; now it’s about 100. Maybe that’s a good thing.”

In the time Laforce has managed food service at CVU, the menu has grown from just two specials to vegetarian and gluten-free options, sandwich and salad bars, and breakfast offerings. Outside, a garden with six vegetable beds and a greenhouse provides fresh vegetables and herbs that LaForce said make a big difference. Asked if he works more hours than when food service was simpler, Laforce responds, “I don’t think it’s harder. I just get more excited to work.”

Meanwhile, CVU is charting a course through a kind of sea change in how teaching is done. Since June 2013, Act 77, also known as the Flexible Pathways Bill, has brought on an official policy of recognizing interdisciplinary and standards-based approaches to learning, though innovating FTS has been germinating at CVU well before that.

The FTS movement has enjoyed support from principal Adam Bunting and Agency Secretary (and CVU alumnus) Chuck Ross, as well as many teachers who were already collaborating and planning for this opportunity. The grant co-writers are science teacher David Trevithick and wellness teacher Troy Paradee, both native Vermonters.

What is new about this next stage in FTS at CVU? “Rigor,” replies Trevithick. “We’re trying to create citizens with the ability to vote on things like GMO labelling and to use their voice in informal ways as well.”

The FTS curriculum will dovetail with a planned Sustainability Hub in the curriculum, an integral piece of the Flexibility Pathways agenda at CVU. Special educators David Richardson and Sharon Ogden now work with students on the school garden, which is to expand to a larger plot. Other legs of the Hub will include Katy Antos-Ketcham and the Environmental Action Club, and the Design Tech team, which will be building the new hoop houses. In a curriculum environment with ever-fewer border, FTS programs are “a way in” to engaging with biology, math, history, and many other subjects. Trevithick added, “The whole point of sustainability is that a lot of areas can use it.”