The Student Senate at Monu ment Mountain Regional High School is taking action from the farm to the cafeteria table.
Last December, a group of students met with state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and other state education, public health and school officials as well as local vendors to share their idea about piloting a program to integrate locally grown, organic foods into school lunches in compliance with the new state and federal nutrition and food service regulations being implemented this year.
Students said they weren’t satisfied by what could be served.
"When students are given a slice of pizza and told it’s a balanced meal, we’re not sending the right message," co-organizer Zöe Borden, now a junior, told officials at that meeting.
On June 8, just before the end of the school year, members of the Student Senate’s new Student Food Committee and other student volunteers got a green light to pilot their first Local Lunch Day. They mashed up fresh avocados for guacamole, harvested and shredded lettuce from the school’s Project Sprout greenhouse and garden for salads, and set aside $400 in raised funds to buy wraps and vegetables from Berkshire Co-op Market in Great Barrington.
On Wednesday, the students will present their second Local Lunch Day of the year, as part of the go-ahead they were given to produce a monthly meal in the school’s cafeteria.
"We now have proof of concept," said Charlie Gibson, a senior, who’s co-leading the effort this year with fellow senior Kelt Wilska and Borden.
Once a month, one student will take the lead on planning a day’s lunch menu, soliciting help from local businesses and chefs. Students also lead efforts to decorate the cafeteria with fresh flowers and other art, prepare stainless steel silverware versus throwaway plastics, creating information materials about the nutrition and sources of the meal and marketing the monthly event.
"It requires a lot of commitment," Wilska said.
This month, the students have teamed up with Chef Brian Alberg of The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge to prepare a fall harvest menu including: meatloaf made from a steer raised and purchased through a local 4-H program, locally sourced collard greens and a roasted vegetable mash with quinoa, and local melon. There will be milk from High Lawn Farm in Lee and apple cider from Bartlett’s Orchard in Richmond.
The meal costs the same as daily school lunches, $2.50, with adjustments made for students enrolled in the federal free and reduced cost meal program.
"I really love the project because it’s the food I want to eat," said senior Ali Lee, a vegetarian who has begun volunteering with the group.
The results are good -- with about 40 more kids participating in Local Lunch Day over the daily average -- but the process hasn’t been easy.
"It’s been a challenge and a learning experience. We need to know the rules and regulations and have to meet the standards," Borden said.
This not only includes following the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) serving portions and food group requirements, but also preparation and kitchen sanitation standards and practices. The students have to rely on parent and teacher involvement since they’re not allowed to use knives if they’re under the age of 18.
Some students are stepping up to take a ServSafe certification class to learn the proper skills.
The students also had to learn to negotiate with the school’s kitchen staff, since they would be using the space and equipment.
Food service director Kathy Sullivan said the process is a learning curve, but also a "positive step forward."
She also said she understands why kids might not be happy with school meals, particularly when it comes to portions.
The calorie intake limit is 850 calories. Schools are required to serve more fruits and vegetables than other food groups. For example, high school students must be served at least two ounces of meat or meat/protein alternative a day, but not to exceed 12 ounces in a single week. Younger kids get less.
Overall the group hopes by continuing to work together, with local vendors, they can figure out how to create, serve and sustain the interest in healthful, appealing, hunger-halting school meals while keeping within cost and regulations.
Said Monument Principal Marianne Young, "Kids are asking for both food variety and more options. There’s no reason why we couldn’t accomplish this with the resources we have in this school and this community."