(Pictured Above: Salad bar at North Country High School featuring Watermelon radishes from Deep Root Organic, mixed beets and shoots from Pete’s Greens, and Hood cottage cheese.)

The Local Food for Schools Program (LFS), launched by the Vermont Department of Agriculture, Food and Markets in September 2023, has provided funding to Vermont schools to purchase local, minimally processed foods to supplement their breakfast and lunch programs. This initiative has already benefited many schools and food producers throughout the Northeast Kingdom, where Green Mountain Farm Direct serves as the primary food hub administering the program.

A total of $123,232 was allocated to 26 Supervisory Unions across 8 counties in Northern Vermont, including Orleans, Essex, Caledonia, Franklin, Lamoille, Grand Isle and Chittenden counties. Heading into third quarter, just over $75K has been spent so far, with some schools still yet to order.

One of the biggest challenges of administering these funds has been figuring out how to reach small, rural schools. Nowhere has this challenge been more acute than in Franklin and Essex counties, where new routes have had to be created and limited to bi-weekly or even monthly deliveries in some cases. Meeting order minimums is another challenge for schools with small student populations and even smaller kitchens. To work around these barriers, Green Mountain Farm Direct and trucking partner, Farm Connex, have implemented drop shipments, allowing multiple small orders to be combined into a single drop that meets delivery requirements. The drop shipments are another way to reach some rural schools that are off the beaten path. While not ideal, these workarounds have afforded numerous schools the opportunity to purchase high quality, local food that would otherwise be outside the scope of their budgets.

For the schools that have already ordered, the expansive offerings available through Farm Direct have been greatly appreciated. When asked about the impact of LFS on the meal service at Mountain Mansfield School District, Food Service Director Billi Whitehill stated, “The students have really appreciated Kingdom Creamery Yogurt as a healthy, local option. The availability of Goat Milk is also very fortunate since we have a student that is only able to drink Goat Milk and I have not been able to source it anywhere else. We have made awesome green salads with local lettuces and served apples from Hall’s Orchards many times.” Speaking about Farm Direct she added, “Thank you for being helpful, easy to work with, and supporting local agriculture.”

Chef Jesse Lucas of The Abbey Group had this to say about his experience using LFS at North County High School: “The use of these funds has allowed us to change up the offerings of the salad bar with colorful options like watermelon radishes and magenta slaw,” which has sparked curiosity in some of the students. Chef Lucas has also been able to improve upon some existing menu items with the addition of products like Sweet Rowen’s cheese curds in place of generic shredded mozzarella. According to him, the new “‘Pulled Pork Poutine’ is a dramatic improvement and was very well received.”

The program has also been a huge boon for Vermont producers who no longer have to compete with cheaper, generic alternatives in order to reach schools. Sales from local meat producers like Brault’s Market and NEK Processing have skyrocketed in recent months. For other producers like Pitchfork Pickle, schools are a new type of customer altogether, as Pitchfork’s high-end products like Curry Kraut, Miso Kimchi and “Vampire” hot sauce typically fall far outside of a school’s budget.

LFS has allowed schools to branch out and experiment with hundreds of local food products and make significant improvements to their meal offerings. It’s great to see so many schools take full advantage of these funds, but there still remains the challenge of reaching some others. Green Mountain Farm Direct will continue to strive to find solutions to ensure that no Northern Vermont schools are left behind. The Local Food for Schools Program goes to show that schools will prioritize local food purchasing when given the resources to do so!

(Pictured Below: Southwest Chicken Pizza at NCHS featuring Hot Cheddar from Sweet Rowen Farmstead.)