A climate report card for our schools: Food systems – vtdigger.org


Editor’s Note:  Student journalists from more than a dozen schools across Vermont contributed to the Climate Report Card series, reporting on their schools’ systems for heat, electricity, transportation, food, and climate education.  Each article in the series collects a handful of accounts from participating schools; together these stories show that our school communities are working hard to be more energy efficient, and that we face complex trade-offs in seeking to reduce our carbon footprint.  The project does not claim to be a complete or authoritative evaluation: its core purpose is the students’ civic engagement. Special thanks to Mariah Keagy her colleagues at VEEP for their generous collaboration.


The Underground Workshop’s Climate Report Card series was compiled, organized and edited by a team of student editors: Anika Turcotte, Montpelier High School; Adelle Macdowell, Lamoille High School; Anna Hoppe, Essex High School; Mei Elander, Enosburg Falls High School; and Cecilia Luce, Thetford Academy.


Lunch being served at Essex High School, spring 2022. Photo by Anna Hoppe

Contents

Introduction

Sustainable Eating At Montpelier High School 

Snapshot: Twinfield Union High School, Marshfield

Universal Free Meals at Essex High School 

Cranberries and Challenges at U-32 High School, Montpelier 

One District in Focus: Brattleboro

Snapshot: Thetford Academy 

Lingering Questions


Scenes from the food distribution event in Berlin, VT, on May 15, 2020.
Photographs by Gavin Young, U-32 High School.

Introduction

by Mei Elander, Enosburg Falls High School


On May 15, 2020 an estimated 1,900 cars lined up at the Edward F. Knapp State Airport in Berlin to receive food from the Vermont Foodbank and National Guard. However, the supply ran out before all the cars had reached the gate and some were turned away. 

A study conducted by the University of Vermont found that food insecurity increased by a third during the pandemic. This trend continues as the cost of food creeps up. While the Vermont Foodbank and other organizations work to support citizens, Vermont’s state government is working to solve this problem in school cafeterias. 

On May 31, 2022  Governor Scott signed S.100, a one-year experimental program that provides free breakfast and lunch to Vermont students. These free meals help create a more equitable environment by making meals accessible to all, and helps erase the stigma of school lunches.

On the other hand, universal meals contribute to more waste in the school system. Schools must serve a complete meal to be reimbursed and many students do not eat all the food on their tray.

On July 1, 2020 the Food Scrap Ban law was enacted, banning all food scraps from the trash or landfills. This came after Vermont officials consistently found 20% of food scraps in the trash, which is a producer of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than CO2. This law requires all schools to compost, many of whom were before it was enacted, but even composting contributes to waste when factoring in the energy that took to create the food, package, and ship it. 

On July 1, 2021 Governor Scott signed Act 67, a pilot program with incentives for public schools to buy from local farms. This effort, however, has also faced obstacles. Fresh food means more hands needed to prepare and cook the meals, and Vermont has seen a labor shortage across the board, including school cafeterias. 


Sustainable Eating at Montpelier High School

by Anika Turcotte and Jaya Armstrong, with reporting from Lorenza Fechter


Students at Montpelier High School harvest lettuce. Photos by Anika Turcotte

Every Monday morning at 8 over two dozen students pack into the Montpelier High School greenhouse. Located behind the main school building and surrounded by outdoor garden beds, the greenhouse’s translucent roof lets in the early morning light.

The warm, humid air is filled with students’ conversations, movement and music as they harvest lettuce. Large tables line the greenhouse with trays of both mesclun and gourmet lettuce mixes, and students stand shoulder to shoulder as they work. 

Every student is responsible for a tray of greens, and today they carefully pick leaves off the stalk and consolidate them into trays for weighing. Students typically harvest a few ounces per week, a yield that when multiplied by Montpelier’s entire underclassmen cohort is enough to supply the district’s 1,100 students for the week. The surplus is sold to faculty and staff at a low price, and the money covers basic needs to keep this process going.

Tom Sabo has been a science and sustainability teacher at Montpelier High School since 1997,  and throughout his career he has been working to connect students and the community through sustainability .  

The greenhouse is the heart of Montpelier’s sustainability culture. Sabo wrote the initial grant for it in June 2003. The grant was offered by Shelburne Farms with the intent to pull together a group of teachers to look at different ways sustainability could be taught effectively at Montpelier High School.  These teachers wanted to incorporate more sustainability across the curriculum, and to make Montpelier High School a model of sustainability for surrounding communities. This is how the idea came to grow food on school grounds. 

The plan was for students to grow greens for the salad bar in the greenhouse to be consumed during school lunch. Student involvement in this process began immediately. Greens grow fast, are consumed in large amounts, and it is easy to involve students because of how simple the growing process is. 

Outside of the pandemic, every kid in Montpelier since 2004 spent a year in the greenhouse growing salad greens. Students in classes such as biology and, more recently, integrated science, have also been planting, growing, and harvesting greens on campus. 

COVID-19  restrictions took a toll on the school’s ability to involve students in this process but now the salad bar is up and running again.

Students weigh harvested lettuce and record yields.

The crops grown in the main greenhouse include but are not limited to beans, broccoli, corn, onions, beets, turnips, and butternut squash, which is then turned into MHS squash soup and served during school lunch. Many other crops are grown in school gardens. The AP Spanish students have grown heirloom potatoes and corn, which is then used to make masa flour tortillas that have been served in the cafeteria in past years. Students and faculty also collect eggs from the many species of hens that live on campus, and honey from the school’s beehives. 

Learning in the greenhouse continues after the school year ends. This semester students in the Environmental Applications class were assigned crops, researched them and are responsible for their care. This process will be picked up by students in the fall semester of the Environmental Applications class. 

The school’s summer program runs for four weeks. Students earn a semester of science credit if they’re successful, and are paid $13 an hour. Students tend to the gardens, greenhouse and chickens on campus. Tilapia fish waste in the aquaponic system is drained into a gravel bed and used to fertilize plants. Summer program students also work on farms in surrounding areas. 

Sam Bromley is a science teacher at MHS. Last year he worked with Tom Sabo and other MHS staff to offer enrichment programs, teaching  students to cook. In these classes, students harvested produce from the school gardens and processed it themselves. They learned cooking techniques and gained a greater appreciation of localized food systems. 

Bromley said that one student who participated in last year’s enrichment class continues to use the skills he learned now that he’s in college. “He really enjoys being able to return to his dorm room and cook up something that actually tastes good and isn’t your typical microwave dinner option,” Bromley said.

Sam Bromley works with students during a cooking enrichment class he spearheaded last year. Photo courtesy of Montpelier Roxbury School District.

In coming years he will expand his curriculum into the culinary arts. Bromley has been awarded a fellowship from the Rowland Foundation to devote to the integration of sustainable food studies. Bromley will help teachers bring more sustainable options into their classrooms to complement the curriculum. 

This year Bromley helped the school’s Modern American Literature class prepare dishes brought to America by enslaved Africans and their descendants. In addition to class-related projects like these, Bromley also aspires to get students cooking for each other, whether that be in the cafeteria or at school events. 

In previous years Sabo and Bromley have worked together to make hot sauce from tomatoes and hot peppers grown in the greenhouse. The “Solon Sauce” (The Solon is the MHS mascot) is then packaged and sold to the cafeteria and public at $7 per bottle. Last year students made 70 cases of hot sauce.

With this program, Bromley will be strengthening connections between the school’s greenhouse, woodfired pizza oven, beehives and the classroom. “The more that students can be involved in preparing the food once it leaves our gardens, the better,” he said. 

Students in 2020 harvest squash from the school gardens. Bromley’s enrichment program prepared, roasted and stored the squash for the cafeteria to use. Photo courtesy of Montpelier Roxbury School District.

Bromley and Sabo are also involved in the annual MHS Fall Harvest Celebration, a whole-school event featuring a 100% local meal. The majority of the vegetables served at the Fall Harvest Celebration are grown on school grounds. Last year, pizza served by students and faculty at the celebration was made in the school’s wood-fired clay pizza oven with sauce made from MHS ingredients.

Aside from the delicious food and community bonding that comes from the Fall Harvest Celebration, students in the environmental applications class calculate the food miles and carbon emissions associated with the meal using industrial ingredients before the festival. Carbon miles are calculated by comparing how much CO2 would be produced if the food was coming from California.

For example, versus how much CO2 would be produced if the food came from MHS. Food coming from a common industrial source over 3,000 miles away would produce much more CO2 than the food coming from MHS. In fall of 2021, the students calculated that the impact of the local Fall Harvest Festival Meal produced 176 food miles and 200 lbs/CO2 from carbon emissions. Whereas a meal sourced from the industrial food system would produce 28,620 food miles and 103,990 lbs/CO2 from carbon emissions. Overall, sourcing the meal locally saved 28,444 miles and 103,790 lbs/CO2. 

Change is coming to the food in the cafeteria as well. Daily cafeteria meals are really where carbon miles start to have an impact.  

Local foods currently make up 12% of the Montpelier cafeteria. A major challenge in growing that figure? The fact that it’s difficult to define local foods. With COVID-19 and layers of state and national requirements, the definition is always changing. That makes it difficult for Food Service Directors like Jim Birmingham to determine what is and is not local. 

Last school year unclear requirements led Montpelier to mischaracterize the status of some goods. Local products were marked as imported and vice versa. Milk is not considered when dividing local by total purchases either.  

Public schools get the majority of food in the form of government commodities and from national providers. When Birmingham orders vegetables, chicken strips and cheese, he does so a year in advance. Plus there are tight restrictions on what they can order, based on subsidies, credits and government funding. The regulations that determine Birmingham’s purchases come directly from the federal government in the form of government regulations and meal component standards. 

Montpelier High School has been approved for a grant this coming school year to expand upon local purchases. The school will receive 15 cents for each meal served the previous year with the condition that at least 15% of food purchases are made locally.

Birmingham said that usually he wouldn’t choose to purchase things like local veggie burgers because they are simply too expensive. However with the incentive grant, making the local choice means that his kitchen is receiving more money.. He orders ground beef from Waitsfield and purchases seasonal vegetables from Dog River Farm 15 miles away.

“It makes sense for me to do it,” Birmingham said. 

Students in Sam Bromley’s class prepare fresh ingredients. Photo courtesy of Montpelier Roxbury School District.

Cafeterias like Birmingham’s receive funding on both the federal and state level. In the last two years meal reimbursements have come from the federal government alone. The school is given a certain amount of money to spend on goods from the USDA commodity catalog each year (a figure calculated based on how many meals the cafeteria sold the previous year). Certain local companies are large enough that their products can be found in the USDA catalog, like the Mckenzie ham and Cabot cheese in Montpelier High School’s deli. Birmingham considers these bonuses: a way to cut down on the distances food has to travel while working within a rigid system.


Snapshot: Twinfield Union High School, in Marshfield

by Ayduyn Corbett


Lee Collier, center, is director of food services at Twinfield Union School, a K-12 school in Marshfield. Marney Chesaux, left, and Amy Adams, right, work with Collier in Twinfield’s kitchen.

Twinfield prioritizes local food vendors, including Warden Maple Syrup, Maple Glen Farm, Champlain Orchards, Vermont Country Farms, Black River Meats, Cabot Creamery, H.P. Hood, Green Mountain Creamery, King Arthur Flour, Vermont Village Cannery, Sugarhouse, Georgia Mountain Maple and most recently Greenfield Highland Beef located in Plainfield. “We also get local produce delivered monthly,” Collier said. “Harvest of the month items, from Green Mountain Farm Direct.”

“We started to use paper trays because of the Covid restrictions,” Collier said. “We are still following Covid restrictions and we are short staffed. So with all of the extra work that we need to do, we don’t have the staff or the time to do dishes. When all restrictions are lifted for food service then we will be transitioning back to our reusable food service items.”

“School food policies seek to provide and to encourage healthy food choices during the school day,” Collier said. “I think school meals are more on the radar now. More local food and the nutritional quality of food has gotten better.”


Universal Free Meals at Essex High School

by Anna Hoppe


A taco plate at Essex High School. Photo by Anna Hoppe

On nacho days at Essex High School, the line to get food is especially long, but not just because of the nachos. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, about 100 students at Essex High School ate the school’s breakfast each day; now it’s 500. And the number of students getting the school’s lunch has doubled. The difference? Now it is free for everyone. 

Scott Fay is the Director of Nutrition for the Essex Westford School District, the largest district in the state. “[COVID-19] was kind of like a reset switch for us. We had been doing things the same way for so long. It was kind of hard to pick our heads up and see that, and COVID let us do that,” he said. “We were doing roadside pickups [during remote and hybrid learning], all kinds of different things, [and] we wanted to put this place back together in a different way than it was before.” 

Students with lunch at Essex High School. Photo by Anna Hoppe

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, federal aid allowed all districts to have universal free lunch and breakfast. Universal free meals has allowed the nutrition department to focus on more from-scratch cooking, sourcing local foods, and creating a more welcoming and inclusive lunchroom.

However, the current program ends on June 30, so it needed to be replaced by a state-funded version in order to continue.

Emma Renaud, a 9th grader at Essex High School, testified on March 16 at the statehouse in support of S.100, a bill that would extend universal free meals into the 2022-2023 school year. 

Universal free meals is “something that affects everyone’s everyday life here,” Renaud said. “It’s just complete equality in the cafeteria, which we haven’t seen before.” 

Renaud had experienced worry and embarrassment over not having enough money in her meals account. “It’s definitely scary,” she said. “My friends have definitely told me that it’s something that they worry about, and that’s affected them.

Essex High School student Emma Renaud speaking this March at the statehouse.

Essex Representative Tanya Vyhovsky was another vocal advocate for the law and spoke in support of it during the House session on Tuesday, April 26th. 

Vyhovsky spoke about her experiences, both as a school social worker and as a student who struggled with the stigma surrounding free and reduced lunch. When she was younger, she was bullied and often skipped eating to avoid the cafeteria. To try to fit in, she got a job to pay for her lunch, but she missed out on “so much” because of her job. 

“As a school social worker, I have worked in many different schools, some of which were known to be high poverty schools, and some of which were not thought of that way, and I know that universal school meals will make every single one of our schools stronger and better,” she said.

The Statehouse passed the bill and delivered it to the governor on May 25, and he signed it into law on June 1st. 

Universal free lunch has also allowed EWSD’s nutrition department to focus on sourcing local foods and cooking. “Because we weren’t running cash registers and trying to, you know, collect pin numbers and all this stuff, we had more people working in kitchens that could focus on creating real food,” Fay explained. 

Cooking from scratch does pose some challenges. “We used to buy little breakfast breads. You’re never gonna burn one,” Fay said. “There isn’t the same kind of control over your end product [when baking].” However, that has not had a big impact on costs. 

Scones in the Essex High School cafeteria. Photo by Anna Hoppe.

Obtaining steady supplies has been a challenge for the Essex Westford School District, Andrew Peet, the assistant food manager, added. “So say we are getting a certain flour for our bakery,” he said. “If they were out of that particular flour and I had to get a different substitute, that’s where I would see a hike in price.” Since only 8 to 12% of purchased food is made in Vermont, most of the food still comes from PSG Performance Food Group, a national supplier formerly known as Reinhart.

Securing consistent supplies has also been an issue as the district has worked to source more local foods, such as when they tried to partner with Food Connects, a distributor, to buy Boyden beef. “The second time we ordered the beef we basically broke their system because we just needed too much,” Fay explained. 

Fay was hoping to purchase beef, chicken, vegetables, cheese, and more through Food Connects, but they are not big enough to meet the district’s needs. Still, having a distributor is generally better than connecting with individual farms, because each new supplier requires an additional relationship, including paperwork through the National School Breakfast and Lunch Program. “Working with individual farms is really hard, because [the] whole procurement [process] inside the National School Breakfast and Lunch Program is challenging because it’s a nonprofit, and it’s all federally funded,” Fay said. “To procure correctly means getting a lot of paperwork, [and] it’s really difficult.”

“Almost all of our chicken [is] coming from Misty Knoll… and then we just got a relationship with LaPlatte [beef],” Fay said. The district is also purchasing maple syrup from Tucker Maple Sugarhouse in Westford, and apples from Chapin Orchards in the fall. Fay said that getting local food is hard, but doable. One challenge is the lack of local produce, except for foods like squash, during the school months.

Kitchen staff prepare sandwiches at Essex High School. Photo by Anna Hoppe

Last year, the statehouse created an incentive program for local foods. The Essex Westford School District has applied for the grant, which would be applied next year. The grant reimburses schools based on the percentage of food purchased that is grown or produced in Vermont. For example, if 15% of food purchased is local, the nutrition department receives a 15 cent reimbursement per lunch. 

“We need to spend a lot of money to get to even 15%. We spend about a million dollars on food every year. So that’s about $150,000 inside the state of Vermont. We’re not going to get there with potatoes and carrots,” Fay said. But by focusing on products like yogurt, cheese, and meat, the school will likely be able to reach the 15% mark.

“I’m anticipating next year being a little bit choppy in the learning process,” Fay said. As more local farms and food businesses are approached by schools, they will have to balance supplying schools with supplying stores and restaurants.

The newly passed Universal Free Meals law will continue the program through next school year,with the intent to form a permanent program next legislative session. If it is not made permanent or extended, Fay said it would mean “having to find resources to run registers again, having to collect free and reduced lunch meal applications, [which] creates all kinds of inequities and a less inclusive environment.” 

What can students do? Andrew Peet has simple advice: “Eat school lunch,” he said. 


Cranberries and Challenges at U-32 High School

by Oliver Hansen and Carson Beard


Cranberry packets are everywhere at U-32, a side effect of universal free lunch and its requirement that students take a fruit, which many do not eat. These packets were stuffed in a desk in a science classroom. Photo by Carson Beard.

Since school resumed during the Covid-19 pandemic, the amount of students getting school lunch at U-32 High School in Montpelier has almost doubled. With government aid, the lunches have also become free, as long as you take a fruit, vegetable, whole grain, protein, and dairy, with the goal of giving students healthy meals. 

The policy requiring students to take all of these meal components has led to some interesting hobbies in school. Some students have taken up collecting cranberry packets at school. 

“I think collecting cranberries is just in my blood,” said Addison Proulx, a senior at U-32. Proulx’s new pastime is part of a larger problem at U-32. 

Any given day, you can find cranberries in the halls, smushed into the ground, and taking over the share box. Cranberries are present in almost every setting. One teacher, Christine Fitch, was surprised to find students filling two drawers in her classroom with the cranberry packets. 

The choice to change to supplying Cranberries by the U-32 food service was difficult. They were unable to continue getting their usual fruit because of the pandemic and chose to go in a new direction. 

“We tried them in the kitchen,” Brian Fischer, the director of U-32’s food service said of the cranberries,  “and we like them.”  

The cranberries are just the tip of the iceberg for challenges facing the food service in the pandemic. U-32’s kitchen staff has dropped from nine to five people, leading to many changes. Custom-built sandwiches are no longer available because of the lack of hands in the kitchen. They also have switched to using disposable dishes and cutlery because they don’t have the time or people to wash dishes from the 350 lunches being ordered daily.

Food on its way to the ovens in U-32’s kitchen. Photo by Ben Bourgeois.

Using disposable cutlery and dishes means even more waste coming from the cafeteria compared to pre-pandemic, when regular dishes and silverware were used. 

With the large increase of students getting school lunch, the amount of compost being generated is almost the same as pre-pandemic. Besides compost, there is a share-box and baskets where students can put food they haven’t eaten and don’t want to eat. The food is cleaned and returned to the fridge if they are still edible. 

With school lunches being subsidized by the government, it is harder for Fischer to include locally sourced food in the menu. Currently about 15% of the menu is locally sourced. The majority of foods available in the cafeteria are grown during the summer when school is out, making it hard to include local foods. 

U-32 sometimes receives food that has gone bad, like these carrots, which had to be sent back.
Photo by Ben Bourgeois.

“I could buy tons of brussel sprouts,”Fischer said. “But what am I going to do with those brussel sprouts? I’ll pay a premium for them and kids are just going to throw in the garbage.” 

The cafeteria at U-32 is also making less money than before the pandemic. “Right now, a turkey sandwich with fruit, vegetables and milk. It costs us $4.25,” Fischer said. “And then our reimbursement from the government was $4.65”. The 40-cent difference is what pays for all the labor and equipment. This leaves the food service department heavily reliant on a la carte items to finance their labor and other costs.


One District in Focus: Brattleboro

by Elena Hannigan and Anna Cummings


The kitchen at Brattleboro Union High School.

The third block bell rang and students flooded into the cafeteria for lunch. They grabbed pre-prepared sandwiches, tater tots, and parfaits. Other students lined up for the meal of the day, loading food onto paper trays and grabbing milk cartons from the coolers. Students dispersed throughout the school, most eating in either the cafeteria or the adjoining courtyard. 

Some members of the cafeteria staff portioned out the hot lunch and restocked the tater tots, while others in the kitchen readied the next round of lunches. 

The kitchen staff works hard to provide meals for all students, making sure to include vegetarian, gluten-free, or dairy-free options. The BUHS cafeteria is aiming towards a more sustainable future as well. 

Brattleboro is a town with a population of about 12,000 residents in southeastern Vermont. It directly borders New Hampshire, separated only by the Connecticut River. The public high school, Brattleboro Union High School (BUHS), consists of about 800 students in grades 9-12. The students aren’t just from Brattleboro; they also come from Guilford, Dummerston, Dover, Marlboro, and other surrounding towns. BUHS is connected to the public middle school, Brattleboro Area Middle School (BAMS), which has approximately 200 students, as well as the Windham Regional Career Center (WRCC), which enrolls 155 students. 

The BUHS cafeteria — along with the cafeteria of Academy School, an elementary school in West Brattleboro — cooks for several schools in the district. Besides cooking for the high school, the cafeteria provides for BAMS, Green Street (K-6), Guilford (PK-6), Oak Grove (K-6), St. Michael’s (PK-12), and six daycares. BAMS has about 300 students, Green Street 280, Guilford 135, Oak Grove 135, and St. Michael’s 100.

In an interview with Ali West, the Regional Food Service Manager, it was revealed that there are currently eight staff members working in the BUHS cafeteria. In the month of February (a month in which school was only in session for 14 days) the cafeteria served 12,394 breakfasts and 15,216 lunches. 

The cafeteria also provides snacks in the morning and after school. It’s an impressive feat for the eight cafeteria staff members to provide for so many schools and students. Illness and other stresses have greatly pressed the staff this year. One week saw no hot lunches at BUHS due to the majority of the staff being out sick. 

Understaffing is not the only challenge the cafeteria faces. West stated that “the biggest [problem] is cost; it’s always going to be cost.” This lack of funding and staffing strongly affects the cafeteria’s ability to be environmentally friendly and sustainable. 

Mary Lou Steiner, from the school district’s Central Office, said the cafeteria’s total budget was around $550,000 per school year — a number that is easily surpassed by carrying out the basic needs for students. 

Canned foods in storage at BUHS

One way the cafeteria could become more environmentally friendly with the help of a larger budget would be through serving more local food. 

Currently, Sysco is the number one food provider for the cafeteria. Local food is provided by Foodconnects, making up only about 15-20% of the school’s food. The rest of the food is supplied by Black River Produce and commodities. Ali West said that she wished the cafeteria could purchase more local food, and that they would, if the cafeteria’s workforce was larger. Buying local food means a much greater amount of processing labor, and the cafeteria staff have enough on their hands as is. 

Take carrots as an example. When purchased through Sysco, they are completely prepared. Carrots from a small, local farm would need to be washed, peeled and cut manually by the cafeteria staff. The school’s budget for local food is also very small, and local food costs marginally more than wholesale foods (especially protein such as beef). Luckily, BUHS does receive $30,000 in Commodities, a grant that goes towards mainly local food. 

Other obstacles also stand in the school cafeteria’s way of acquiring “local” food. The definition of “local food,” for a school in Vermont, means food that is grown and produced in Vermont. Brattleboro is located in the southeast corner of Vermont — New Hampshire is just over the Connecticut River, and Massachusetts is just a few miles south. Food from these states is not considered local, even though they closely border Brattleboro. However, food from hours away, in the northern areas of the state, is considered local. 

Ali West disapproves of this policy. “For me not to be able to call those farms local but I can ship something down from Burlington and call that local, I don’t think is correct,” she said. “I’m not going to stop buying my stuff from… a sustainable organic farm just to buy something else from a different place in the state of Vermont that has to get shipped further.”

There is not currently a Farm To School program at BUHS. Brattleboro Academy Middle School, which shares the same cafeteria, does have one, but West said it is not very strong. West is looking to hire a Farm To School Coordinator. If students are to work with food, the program would need a manager. The barriers to instating a Farm To School program, besides staffing, are time, space, and money.

The Windham Regional Career Center, which is part of the BUHS campus, has a greenhouse. Ali West said that students might be able to grow food there, but Nancy Weise, the WRCC Director, explained that “the greenhouse was built on the north side of the building… the opposite side than it should be on.” This lack of southern exposure strongly impacts the efficiency of the greenhouse, but this is not the only issue. Weise said that “the greenhouse mechanical system needs repair, and since we no longer have a horticulture program, funding the repairs is challenging.”

BUHS used to have a “share table” (in this case, a share cooler): a place to put food that students weren’t planning on eating for other students to have. Unfortunately, the cooler broke. It was also not energy-efficient, as it was an open cooler. Ali West is trying to get a grant for a new and more efficient cooler for the high school to use as their share table. “I have share tables at every single one of the elementary schools,” West said. “I’ve gotten refrigerators for them.” 

Fresh fruit in the lunch line at BUHS.

The cafeteria has been working for years to minimize the school’s inorganic waste. Most of the plastic in the cafeteria is biodegradable, and it costs the same as non-biodegradable plastic. The smallest packaging containers are not compostable, but they are recyclable. The paper (trays, plates, etc.) is compostable, as are the parfait containers and silverware. Unfortunately, many students who eat at the cafeteria don’t know that these items are biodegradable. The items are then thrown in the trash, even though they could be utilized as compost.

Waste in the cafeteria is separated into three containers: there is a compost bin, a recycling bin, and a trash can. However, items are often thrown in the wrong container. If items are in the wrong bin (i.e., trash in compost or recycling), the bag is then thrown in the trash. The grounds and custodial staff do not remove any trash that is put into the wrong bin, and the waste removal company rejects bags with incorrect contents. 

Ricky Aither, the BUHS Grounds Manager, works with Goodenough Rubbish Removal to dispose of all of the school’s trash, compost, and recycling.  Goodenough Rubbish is a local business with just a handful of employees. Compost is disposed of into compostable bags. Those bags are then deposited into a specific dumpster to be commercially composted. 

There are only compost bins in the cafeteria and previously in the Multi-Purpose Room (MPR), which was formerly used by students to eat lunch. There are no compost bins upstairs or in any classrooms, leaving students and teachers who eat upstairs to dispose of their waste into trash cans. Recycling, besides the bins in the cafeteria, is managed individually by teachers. Each teacher has a recycling bin in their classroom, and it is their responsibility to control what goes into it and to put it outside of their room to be collected at the end of the week. 

Many aspects feed into the concept of an environmentally friendly and sustainable food system. Local food and organic waste disposal are only two of the main ways a school cafeteria can help maintain their sustainability, and both have their difficulties. Cheaper alternatives to more climate-friendly resources are unavoidable with the BUHS’ current cafeteria budget. 

For now, however, the cafeteria is sustaining itself well. Enough food is served for the students, and there is, under usual circumstances, a wide variety of food available daily. Ali West, the Food Services Manager, is hopeful in creating a more sustainable and environmentally friendly cafeteria. With the right resources, the BUHS cafeteria could become far more sustainable.

Compostable silverware at BUHS.

Snapshot: Thetford Academy 

by Cecilia Luce


The garden at Thetford Academy borders miles of cross-country trails and overlooks the White Mountains. This past academic year, the school hired a garden coordinator to work with students. Students have had the opportunity to participate in a garden club throughout the year, growing flowers and vegetable species native to Vermont. 

              Small plants thrive in a raised bed at the Thetford Academy garden.

This year’s timber framing class at Thetford Academy built a composting facility for future use at the school.


Lingering Questions

by Anika Turcotte, Montpelier High School 


In a survey of over 600 Vermont High School students, over 130 specifically answered that “better food” would inspire them to eat school lunch more frequently. Students noted the lack of options as well. How can schools work more variety into their menus while balancing environmental and fiscal limitations?

School gardens can supply vegetables for part of the year, but how can local produce be integrated into the kitchens to meet demand year-round?

Many cafeterias face staff shortages. How can understaffed kitchens adapt to the additional labor required for processing organic or local produce?

Are efforts being made to prioritize local options at the USDA? 

In our survey 44.3% of students reported eating less than two-thirds of the food on their tray. Will extending Universal Free Meals contribute to food waste?