Abbey Group strives to source local produce for schools all year
BENNINGTON -- Throughout October, schools nationwide are celebrating Farm to School Month.
According to the National Farm to School Month website, www.farmtoschool.org, the celebration stems from the passage of House Resolution 1655, a resolution passed by Congress in 2010 which both officially denoted October as National Farm to School Month and demonstrated the importance of Farm to School programs in the U.S.
The month is meant to be a time for students, teachers, and families to celebrate the connections happening across the country between K-12 schools and local farms and the food that they produce.
The Farm to School movement in general aims to serve healthy breakfasts and lunches in school cafeterias, thereby improving student nutrition, while simultaneously supporting local farmers. Farm to School programs exist in all 50 states, but since farm to school is known as a "grassroots" movement, the programs differ depending on each respective community.
According to Maureen O'Neil, food service director for the Southern Vermont sector of the Abbey Group, the food service company which provides local schools with breakfast and lunch accommodations, National Farm to School Month is celebrated not only throughout October, but every other month as well.
"One month isn't more special than the other," O'Neil said. "We are year-round advocates of the farm to school movement."
She went on to explain that The Abbey Group sources as much local produce as possible from area farms such as Clearbrook Farm, Moses Farm, True Love Farm, and Maplebrook Farm, just to name a few.
"Right now, we're getting all of our apples from Southern Vermont Apple Orchards," O'Neil said. "Every week, we pick up about 20 cases."
O'Neil said that this week, students participated in school-wide apple tastings, which allowed them to sample different types of apples.
"The kids were able to try apples that maybe they'd never had before," she said.
According to O'Neil, Rick Heyniger, the Abbey Group's farm to school coordinator, plays a heavy hand in ensuring that the majority of their produce comes from local farms.
"He acts as a liaison with the farms and is actually a farmer himself," she said. "He looks at what's in season, what looks good. Sometimes we'll freeze things from the summer to use later on in the year. It really depends on what's available."
Last week, Heyniger picked up 60 pounds of peppers from local farms and distributed them among local schools.
O'Neil said that students seem to enjoy the farm to school concept that is practiced by The Abbey Group.
"We have signs in the cafeterias that say where the food is from," she said. "The kids get a kick out of seeing where their food is grown, especially from farms they know."
O'Neil also noted the economic aspect of the Farm to School movement.
"It really helps our community," she said. "We're supporting our local farmers by buying their food and so we're supporting our local economy."
While O'Neil recognizes the value in sourcing local food, she also noted that relying solely on local food is not a reality, as the Abbey Group feeds upwards of 3,000 students every day, from Shaftsbury, Pownal, Bennington, North Bennington, and Woodford.
"We couldn't exist just on local food," she said. "We use as much of it as we can get, and then get quality non-local product as well."
O'Neil added that faculty from Mount Anthony Union Middle School, in a group now known as "New Roots" have made strides towards fully embracing the Farm to School movement.
Last year, the school applied for and was accepted into the Farm to School Institute at Shelburne Farms, a 1,400 acre working farm and a non-profit education center for sustainability.
MAUMS was one of only 10 school statewide accepted into the program.
This past June, the "New Roots" group, of which O'Neil is a member, spent three days learning the "3-Cs" of the Farm to School movement: Community, Classroom, and Cafeteria.
"The group showed our commitment for the Farm to School movement and learned how to foster that feeling in our schools," O'Neil said. "It was nice working with other schools doing the same thing and it was an honor to be accepted. We learned a lot."
To learn more about National Farm to School Month, visit www.farmtoschoolmonth.org.
Contact Elizabeth A. Conkey at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @bethconkey.
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