DORSET — Lunchtime at The Dorset School brings the usual commotion and conversation seen in school cafeterias everywhere, but that outwardly familiar scene masks a subtle difference.
As students line up to be served their hot lunches from a cart alongside a wall in one end of the school's gymnasium, which doubles as the lunch room, many will be eating food that often comes from local farms, or even from their own gardens right at the school.
"Farm to School," as the program is known, is not new and not limited locally to The Dorset School. A survey conducted in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 89 percent of Vermont schools participate in some way in farm-to school activities, and state officials suspect the number is actually higher. Only one though, has a corporate executive refugee and foodie fireball like Val Reppin, Dorset's food service manager and chef. Now in her third year wearing her hot peppers-themed chef's hat and doling out the day's lunches to a waitng line of students, she has merged art and science not only in terms of crafting enticing and unusual offerings that students of generations past would never have associated with school lunch.
"She's become a master at using the commodity orders from the government and using them creatively by pulling in other things," said Rosanna Moran, Dorset's school principal."She can plan on her own rather than work in a large system where everything is bulk ordered. We have an excitement with the kids — she makes tofu and the kids eat it! — roasted broccoli — she's getting them to try things they might not try at home."
Dorset already had a farm-to-school program in place when she arrived in 2013. Reppin plunged into helping it grow and evolve, she said.
"I purchase as much local food as I can," she said. "I find that it's such a dance to get as much good government product as I can, to save some money over here to buy that fresh product over there."
She buys products from several local farms and suppliers. Much of what comes through the conventional pipeline is also good quality food and much of it is sourced from Vermont farms, she said.
There are homemade soups and a fresh salad bar on offer each day. Friday pizza is usually a big hit. Reppin likes to talk with the students, find out what they like or would be open to trying, and keeps track of what goes over well and what doesn't work. She'll spend time with the little kids, teaching etiquette and table manners. She'll talk nutritional values with the older kids, who are also "farmers" in their own way.
A few years ago, Reppin got the "wild idea" to use some of the school's grounds to plant their own gardens to grow vegetables and flowers. At last Thanksgiving Day, the school threw a dinner for 400 members of the school community which featured home-grown potatoes, herbs and apples. Rave reviews followed.
There's a small greenhouse out back, along with a couple of raised garden beds, and the flower garden. There's a therapeutic effect that may be almost, if not more valuable, than the nutritional one, she said.
"If a kid's having a hard day, they can go out, pull some weeds, pick some flowers — whatever," she said. "It's therapy for them."
It also saves some money, especially when it comes to herbs, which can eat through a budget. Plus, there's another side benefit — kids are more likely to eat vegetables, if they've grown it themselves, she said.
The kids have a voice in what they plant and grow. One of the science classes made a project of growing kale last year, and presented her with a bouquet of them, Reppin said.
"I had one girl bring heirloom tomato seeds from Italy," she said. "When you put those on a fresh salad and a kid can try something that exotic, they get it."
Kids can opt in or out of the school lunch program, one day at a time. If they sign up for school lunch, it's $3.25; $4 for adults. Reppin gets a count of the number of students who've indicated they'll be customers of the school's lunch program that day, and prepares the volume needed. It varies from one day to the next, and the day's offerings often influence the decision-making. But business is on an upswing. She averages about 150-170 lunches served per day, up from around 100 served up three years ago. Students can bring their own lunches whenever they want. Many who bring their own lunches do so because they are vegan or vegeterian. In response, she has tried to create options for those students, she said.
And she tries to discuss healthy options and good food versus not-so-good food choices. It may take a couple of tries before they are willing to bite on something new and unfamiliar, she said.
Sometimes just having the food out there will tempt one student to try it, and when word gets back to the others that it's not so bad, others will dive in.
"I've found lately that peer pressure is a good thing in the lunchroom," she said with a laugh.
For Dorset's school board chairman, David Chandler, the personalized food service program led by Reppin, with its emphasis on buying local produce as much as possible, and the educational component of nutrition and being tuned in to what the kids want, or are willing to try, is an example of local initiatives that hopefully will not be lost or downgraded as school districts move along the track of consolidation under Act 46.
That's the legislation that is encouraging school districts to hold conversations with neighboring districts with an eye towards merging them into one larger governance unit. Dorset is taking part in such a discussion with Manchester, Sunderland, Danby, Mt. Tabor and the Mountain Towns RED.
"I think when you're pushing economies of scale, a lot of the individual stuff gets forgotten," he said.
The school board had one of its best showings of parents and residents at a board meeting last year where the food program was part of the agenda. The food service fits in closely with other programs, like recycling, that are reducing costs and offer teachable moments, which are important to preserve in the post-Act 46 world, he said.
"I always worry about knee-jerk decisions as opposed to carefully thought through decisions, and when you're in a big situation you don't always have the time to pay attention to what is happening in a small part of one of the many big decisions that are faced. And that can have a a big impact on the experience of the local community," he said.
Plus, the food is darn good, he added.