Local food on the menu for Woodstock-area schools

  • Lead cook Dyan Hoehl transfers 100 pounds of sloppy joes made with beef from Cloudland Farm in Pomfret, Vt., and Boyden Farm in Cambridge, Vt., to a pan to serve students at Woodstock Union High School in Woodstock, Vt., Barnard Academy and Reading Elementary, on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023. Vermont products make up 26% of the Mountain Views Supervisory Union’s food spending, which is 11% above the threshold to qualify for the Vermont Local Foods Purchasing Incentive grant, making it one of the top five school systems in the program. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley news photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Steve Lanoza stocks a sandwich cooler in the Woodstock Union High School cafeteria in Woosdtock, Vt., with peanut butter and jam sandwiches made with strawberry jam from Blake Hill Preserves on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023. The school uses between 10 and 12 gallons of the Vermont-made jam each month. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Woodstock Union High School food service worker Wendy Barr sets out sloppy joe sandwiches and sweet potato fries for lunch in Woodstock, Vt., on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023. Meals for Barnard Academy and Reading Elementary are also prepared in the high school's kitchen, totaling about 400 meals each day. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Sam Fraga, 15, middle, grabs a bite of his lunch while walking with fellow Woodstock Union High School students Andrew Steele, 17, left, and Ian Hewitt, 15, right, to catch a bus from Woodstock, Vt., to the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center, on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023. The number of students fed daily by the food service program at the school, which is part of the Mountain Views Supervisory Union, has roughly doubled to between 300 and 350 students since 2018, an increase lead cook Dyan Hoehl attributes to the start of universal free meals. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/7/2023 8:48:11 PM
Modified: 9/7/2023 8:48:16 PM

WOODSTOCK — The sourcing strategy behind the sloppy joes served to students in the Mountain Views Supervisory Union is anything but disorganized.

They’re made with beef from Cloudland Farm in Pomfret, carefully selected for the students with the Upper Valley food ecosystem at top of mind.

Kids at the Woodstock-area schools in the supervisory union also eat eggs from Birdsong Farm in Stockbridge, Vt. The fruit simmering on the stoves of Windsor’s Blake Hill Preserves turns up in the jam of their peanut butter-jellies.

The locavore ethic is spearheaded by Gretchen Czaja, the SU’s food service director. In 2011, Czaja left her job as a physical education teacher at the Woodstock Elementary School and took over the school’s cafeteria. She turned it into a teaching kitchen, using the space to educate students on Vermont’s food systems and sustainable eating habits. She also wanted to see what she taught reflected on the kids’ plates in the cafeteria.

In 2017, the supervisory union wanted to put the food served at all of its school out to bid to a third-party food provider. Czaja, along with a coalition of parents who valued the food-based learning, put together a proposal themselves.

Czaja became the food director of the entire supervisory union, formerly the Windsor Central Supervisory Union — which serves students from Barnard, Bridgewater, Killington, Pittsfield, Plymouth, Pomfret, Reading and Woodstock — with a mandate to replicate across all schools what she had done with food education and local cooking at Woodstock Elementary. The Cloudland Farm beef she served the kids at the elementary school made it out to the rest of the district.

“My goal was always to connect kids’ lunches with food producers and local foods,” Czaja said.

In 2021, the Legislature passed a bill with that goal, too. The Local Food Purchasing Incentive Grant for schools provides funding to school districts and supervisory unions that meet local purchasing targets in their school meal programs. Act 67 — passed to give a boost to struggling Vermont farms and to cut down on the greenhouse gas emissions associated with trucking in out-of-state food — created a tiered system. Participating schools got 15 cents back for each lunch that includes 15% local food, a metric that extends up to 25 cents and 25% local food.

The stipulations of the grant require that about a quarter of the spending for the supervisory union’s food budget goes toward Vermont products. “And it has very specific definition of what Vermont products are,” Czaja said. “For example, King Arthur Flour doesn’t count. It’s a Vermont company but not produced in Vermont.”

Between breakfast and lunch at the school, more than 900 students are served a meal each day across the supervisory union. Fewer eat breakfast at school, but nearly three-quarters of students participate in the lunch program.

The funding is an opportunity to “advance equity in the community by serving healthy, fresh, local food to everyone, regardless of income,” said Lauren Griswold, local food access director for Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, or NOFA-VT. The Universal School Meals bill, which became law this summer, expanded on a program started during the COVID-19 pandemic and guarantees free meals for students in Vermont public schools. The products sourced through the local foods incentive grant can expand the impact of the bill, largely making the meals it guarantees healthier and more environmentally sustainable.

“Though household access to fresh, healthy, local food is often striated by income, public institutional food service, and Vermont’s K-12 schools in particular … (have) the unique ability to equalize this access within its cafeterias,” Griswold said.

There’s a strategy to sourcing food, Czaja said. “Apples are easy to source, but they’re not high in dollar value,” Czaja said. In other words, they don’t contribute much by way of getting the school closer to the 15% purchasing target. Meat, which is more expensive, is more useful.

Cloudland Farm brings between 200 and 250 pounds of beef to the school district a month for the lunch program, said the farm’s owner, Cathy Emmons. “Gretchen has been great about introducing the kids to local food and getting them to try new produce, like kale, and other things kids may not normally like,” Emmons said.

In the 2021-2022 school year, Mountain Views spent around $88,000 on the Vermont definition of local foods, about a quarter of its annual food budget. The funding is applied retroactively. This year, Czaja hopes to secure money to cover last year’s spending.

Later this month, after some finagling by Czaja and her team, the supervisory union is set to join a pilot program launched by NOFA-VT to bring Vermont organic milk into public school cafeterias across the state. “Vermont milk, it’s a no brainer,” Czaja said.

Still the whole enterprise is easier to pull off on paper than in the kitchen, she said.

“It takes time, and it takes building relationships with local producers and farmers,” Czaja said. “But it’s worth it. We’re keeping those dollars in our state.”

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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