Sunday, August 23, 2009

University of Vermont Features NYC School Food at Food Systems Seminar

Photos (Lexi Van de Walle): University of Vermont Food Systems Seminar at Intervale Farm, Chef Jorge Collazo demonstrating the "proper" technique to cut an onion

Last week, the University of Vermont's Honors College held a three-day food systems seminar for 30 university professors as part of its summer program for educators. They defined food systems, discussed the benefits and challenges of local and regional supply chains, visited a Burlington, VT farm, picked berries and cooked. On the second day, a full morning was devoted to farm-to-school food systems with a focus on New York City Public School Food case study and the Vermont school system's farm to school program.

Co-presenters on school food included: Chef Jorge Collazo, Executive Chef of New York City Public Schools Office of School Food, Megan Camp, of Shelburne (VT) Farms and FEED, the farm-to-school organization in Vermont, and myself, Lexi Van de Walle, editor of the Lighthearted Locavore blog, member of the NYC Alliance for the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, and presenter and organizer for the Slow Food Long Island's School Food Lunch Eat-in.

Amy Trubek, one of the creators of the Food Systems/Honors College curriculum and author of the locavore book The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir, kicked off the morning.

Despite the August heatwave in Vermont (it was 92 degrees at 7 pm at Burlington Airport) and the casual, exam-free atmosphere, the professor "students" were well prepared to discuss the gigantic feeding system in New York City, having read the night before Roberta Sonnino and Kevin Morgan's book School Food Revolution and chapter on New York City public school food.

Chef Jorge, who had lived in Vermont for 10 years, joked about the cold, snowy winters, and endless days of chopping wood to keep the fireplace stoked as he described the 860,000 school meals served every day in New York City, the history of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's focus on school food and decision to hire an Executive Chef early in his administration, how the Departmet of Education has slowly helped transform the second largest feeding system in the US (behind the Department of Defense) , and the many challenges associated with procuring local and regional food for such a large feeding system and on a small per meal budget.

From finding suppliers large enough to provide produce and dairy that meet the specifications of the purchasing department, the challenges in New York State with processing local food and doing so economically and within state to freezing local produce for use during the winter months, food safety and food handling issues, 2009 economic stimulus money for school kitchens, including industrial size steamers (and NO fryers), resource and budget limitations, and the federal funds devoted to the National School Lunch program available through the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act.

Next, I spoke about the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) Act, including the press conference "New York City Getting Short Changed on Healthy Meals" on August 12 in New York City that featured Senator Kristin Gillibrand, Speaker Christine Quinn and their five-point plan, the NYC Alliance for CNR, which includes many members of the Food System Network NYC, and our advocacy visit to Washington DC in June to talk to Senators Gillibrand and Schumers offices and several members of Congress about proposed improvements to school food and administration of the National School Lunch and WIC programs (August 12 press release) including the advances of procuring local and regional food, when possible.

Megan Camp talked about the work being done in approximately 100 schools in Vermont that connect local family farms with schools to provide healthy, nutritious locally grown foods and agriculture and cooking programs that are part of the schools nutrition education. She shared some colorful and inviting brochures and manuals and a DVD that can all be found on the FEED/Vermont Farm to School website (FEED stands for Food Education Every Day).

Chef Jorge listened carefully, perhaps wishing that he could procure local, fresh foods for NYC as efficiently and abundantly as Vermont does.

The student group was comprised of professors from various schools and departments at the university including the nutrition and medical schools, as well as economics, political science, environment, philosophy and psychology departments.

After the presentations everyone shared their reaction to the "school food revolution" as a means to transform food systems and the farm-to-school case studies and how they could bring what they learned back to their classrooms in the Fall semester.

The ideas percolated. From initiating research on healthy school food and test scores, supply chain and scaling up issues, to soil managment and sustainable agriculture, civic politics, ethics and animal welfare projects and economic and food shed analyses and food production computer models.

At the stroke of noon, the group was ready for lunch. We got into vans and cars and headed off to eat at the Intervale Center, an agricultural center and 360 acre farm in the city of Burlington. We had a delicious meal of locally procured delicious, crunchy vegetables and fresh, local tofu sandwiches served by Sugar Snap Catering, a farm-based catering company in the city, followed by a tour of the farm. After our informative tour, the groups split up for different activities, including berry picking and cooking (I picked cooking).

Back in the state of the art (and air conditioned) kitchen at the nutrition school our team cooked a Southeast Asian lunch for the next and final day of the seminar using locally grown produce and the new knife skills they had learned from Chef Jorge who adroitly demonstrated the "proper" (i.e., French) technique for dicing a "round onion" into perfectly shaped cubes.

After cleaning up the pans, a cab whisked me off to the airport for my flight back to New York.

A short thunderstorm came through Burlington Airport that broke heatwave and left a rainbow. A beautiful rainbow just like the colors of the fruits and vegetables that we dream about for our children at school.

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