Burlington School Project Tackles Regional Food Insecurity for Student Youth

By Nora Peachin

Courtesy Photo
Butch + Babe’s served school-lunch inspired meals to fundraise for the Burlington School Food Project.

Replacing the usual microgreens and honey-ginger soy elixir of Burlington restaurant Butch + Babe’s menu on Wednesday, Feb. 27, was an unlikely selection; Vermont meatloaf and veggie tots. The school lunch-inspired dinner, called the Love School Lunch dinner, was held as a fundraiser for the Burlington School Food Project, an organization working to provide healthy meals to all Burlington school district students. 

The Food Project serves daily lunches, free to students at certain schools in the district, as well as free breakfast and supper for all students and free lunches during summer break.

“A lot of times, the focus of schools is test scores, classroom sizes, or curriculum development. But all of this is not really important when your students are showing up to school hungry and malnourished. Our work is ensuring students are ready to learn,” Assistant Director Heather Torrey explained.

Torrey studied community nutrition at the University of Vermont, where she realized the   impact she could have on the community by working in food services. “The work we do every day impacts the students who have our meals,” Torey said. In total, the Project provides over a million meals to students in the Burlington school district per year.

Burlington School Food Project is also committed to buying local whenever possible. According to their website, 20 percent of their annual food costs goes directly to local producers and growers, and this number increases to 33 percent when fluid milk is included in the costs.

The organization receives a combination of state and federal funding for school meals, but has to self-fund other programs. The funds raised from the Love School Lunch dinner will go towards these efforts.

One inititive the Burlington School Food Project has taken on is hunger relief over school breaks. The organization began preparing food for students to take home over breaks to help meet this need. “What some folks don’t think about is that holiday breaks are often a source of stress for many of our students— they’re missing the opportunity to get the only meal they have during the day, which is school lunch,” Torrey said.

In addition, the Burlington School Food Project provides educational opportunities— school gardens, cooking classes and its summer food truck, Fork in the Road. Food Education Manager Sarah Heusner has been running the truck for six seasons. It functions as job training for students in “culinary and hospitality skills, workplace obligations, self-advocacy and confidence,” Heusner detailed.

The truck has also become a huge mentorship opportunity. Heusner finds mentorship lacking for teenagers, and so has made that a focus of her work. She also pointed out that most of her employees are ESL students, so working on the food truck also serves as an opportunity to improve their English.

Aside from raising funds, the Love School Lunch fundraiser was also intended to “highlight how essential Burlington school kitchens are to the community,” according to Torrey. Heusner hoped the dinner would “bring about community awareness of who we are.” She believes many community members do not understand the work of the Burlington School Food Project, and also do not know that 55 percent of youths in the school district are on the verge of being food insecure.

One of the owners of Butch + Babes, Jaclyn Major, used to work as a school cook for the School Food Project. For the Love School Lunch fundraiser, Major teamed up with Jordan Ware of Hen of the Wood, another Burlington hotspot, and three cooks from schools in the district.

Heusner spearheaded the event, meeting with the chefs to go over the menu, plan the flow of the evening and do the marketing. To get inspiration, “the chefs thought about what they ate in school lunch,” Heusner recounted.

Torrey hopes to expand community outreach efforts like this dinner in the future, in order to support the multitude of ongoing projects. She is currently working on overhauling the online nutrient database, “to make it more user friendly for families to get nutrition information for our food.”

Also in the works is a new building project for the Burlington High School, the organization’s largest site to date. “We’re trying to improve our on-site composting efforts and reduce our food waste,” Torrey explained. “With the size of our program, we have the potential to make a huge impact on reducing food waste.”

Heusner’s ultimate goal for her work would be to open a sliding scale restaurant, staffed by students and serving community members. She also wants to continue providing food to families over school breaks. She described how impactful it was “making hunger relief packages and delivering them to people’s houses, hearing the responses and how happy people are to be in the Burlington community. It’s lovely to see that people feel taken care of.”

Visiting Professor at Middlebury Lana Povitz, who is teaching a course on food activism this semester, spoke to The Campus about the importance of school lunches. “Our federally funded National School Lunch Program provides essential support to families throughout the United States, in urban and rural areas alike,” she said. “Advocates need to keep pushing the envelope, even during these austere times.”

Povitz cited ending the separation of children by income levels in school cafeterias as the next item on the agenda. “Universal School Meals (USM) is the surest way to remove poverty stigma sometimes associated with using the National Program and get more children eating the food they need,” Povitz said.

Although the Burlington School Food Project has managed to provide many universally free meals and has made progress on their other goals, some roadblocks stand in their way. Even though the Child Nutrition Program is permanently funded, the level of funding is debated every time the bill is reauthorized. “We will always be funded, it’s just a matter of how much,” Torrey said.

The recent government shutdown also presented an obstacle for schools and school meal providers.  Confusion regarding the future of school lunch funding diminished the quality of some meals. Memos went out to schools, assuring them that they would continue to receive funding through March, even if the shutdown continued through February. “Some schools [panicked] and decided to stop serving fresh fruits and vegetables in case of the possibility that they wouldn’t get funded,” Torrey said. “We chose not to change the quality of our meals.” Still, these added stresses can complicate the work of organizations serving school meals.

Torrey and Heusner both described feeling motivated, despite the challenges of their jobs, by the people that they serve. Torrey recounted working with a focus group of middle school students, discussing improving the breakfast program offerings to meet their tastes. “One student mentioned that she was happy she was part of the group because she always participated in breakfast, because sometimes she hadn’t gotten something for dinner the night before. These moments remind me why I’m doing what I’m doing,” Torrey said. “I feel lucky that I don’t have to wonder where my next meal is coming from.”