Albright: Inch By Inch

May 23, 2016

Shopping for salad fixings the other day, I saw a little freckled boy - he looked about six - reach for a big, red, beet. The grown-up pushing the cart picked up a few more. “Great,” she said. “You love these.”

In another aisle, though, another kid was having a tantrum because she couldn’t have a sugary cereal. Her weary mother gave in, and added it to the chips and sodas in their cart.

As those very different scenes suggest, some Vermonters are more interested in healthy foods than others. And that goes for schools, too, as well as families.

This spring, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its “Farm to School Census” - an interactive online report card showing which school districts are working the hardest to get fresh, local food into school lunches, and to involve students in gardening.

More than 80 percent of Vermont school districts say they participate in farm to school activities. That’s at least 50 districts, serving 12,000-plus students. Collectively, these programs report investing one and a half million dollars in local food, statewide, and there are 85 school gardens. Fewer than half of the nation’s school districts participate in such activities, so Vermont gets a gold star from the USDA.

But the report’s colorful graphics also show that whether a cafeteria serves up fresh locally grown foods depends on where that school is located. The top three districts in Vermont in the farm-to-school hit parade are Washington Central Supervisory Union, Burlington School District, and Milton Town School District.

The districts at the bottom of the list, some of which are, ironically, the most rural, cite several reasons for not growing or serving local produce. They say key items are hard to find year-round, vendors for local items don’t offer a broad range of products, and information about product availability is hard to get. I would wager, though, that the biggest hurdle is finding a teacher willing to add “gardening” to an already long work day. And volunteers, these days, don’t grow on trees.

But farming at school is worth the effort. I’ve seen kids happily weeding, drawing eggplant still lifes, and singing the popular gardening song “Inch by Inch, Row by Row.” As the frost danger wanes, it’s great to see seeds sprouting near playground swingsets. Tended by summer helpers, those crops could show up on school lunch trays in the fall. And young localvores might find out that it can be as much fun to scrape a carrot as to rip open a bag of chips.