The Lunchbox isn't quite like other food trucks. Instead of simply setting up shop and selling food at different locations around the state like many commercial trucks do, The Lunchbox spends the summer months giving away freshly made, locally produced meals to kids under 18.
After Wednesday morning story time, in the basement of the Barton Public Library, a group of kids pour out into the bright July sunshine. The kids and some parents head across the library’s lawn to a food truck that’s ready and waiting to take their orders.
The kids range in age from preschoolers to teenage library helpers and all of them eat for free at The Lunchbox, which is operated by the nonprofit Green Mountain Farm-to-School.
Gretchen Bittner and her three-year-old daughter Andi live in Irasburg. They’ve made a Wednesday morning trip to Barton part of their summer routine.
Gretchen lists the reasons, "The excellent fresh food, and the story time and just getting together with friends of her age."
James Hafferman is executive director of the nonprofit.
He says The Lunchbox gets around: "So we go to Island Pond, Newport and Barton, and we’re able to serve free, healthy locally sourced food for kids at the age of 18 and under," he says.
Because more than half the kids in those communities qualify for free and reduced price school lunches, the United States Department of Agriculture's Summer Food Service Program provides funding for The Lunchbox. The program is now it its fourth summer and Hafferman says it's growing every year.
"So last year we served over 1,500 kids meals during those 10 weeks," Hafferman says of the food truck's summer operating season. "And we also have adult meals for sale, which helps to support the cost of running the truck as well. So it’s a great way for us to not only give kids access to healthy, local food. But it’s also supporting our local farms. Because more than 50 percent of the food that we are selling and giving away is from local farms."
Green Mountain Farm-to-School also works with schools and other institutions, like hospitals and prisons, to source and purchase local foods. They call it Green Mountain Farm Direct. Last year, the program sold over $350,000 worth of products from 34 farmers and food producers.
One of them is Tony Brault. He supplies meat to Green Mountain Farm-to-School, as well as running his own farm, slaughterhouse, smokehouse and retail operation. He says it’s been a good partnership.
"It saves me from marketing and all that end of it," says Brault. "So they kind of take care of that and we do the process so that they can have a good product to sell."
A diversity of outlets helps Brault maximize his bottom line. He's able to sell different cuts of beef through Green Mountain Farm Direct than he does through his retail shop.
Hafferman credits the program’s success to nearly a decade of trial and error.
"Green Mountain Farm-to-School really is about connecting farms and communities and kids to local food, and helping support that economy," he says. "So, we’re able to do that because we’ve had nine years of working on this and testing different things out and seeing what works."
To help support that mission, meals at The Luchbox also come with a side of learning, as Farm-to-School Coordinator Caroline Aubry explains. She has a table set up on the Barton Public Library lawn, across from the food truck.
"This is our education table and every week we have a different fun activity for kids to hands-on learn about their food and today we have the taste bud test," she says. "So, learning about your sense of taste and how it changes from when you may be in fourth grade to when you’re in eighth grade. So always try new foods."
While Green Mountain Farm-to-School serves the Northeast Kingdom, there are similar initiatives across Vermont. According to the Vermont Farm To School Network, over 80 percent of the state’s school districts participate in at least some farm-to-school activities.
Vermont Farms: A Shifting Landscape explores Vermont's agricultural economy with the people who wake up early every day to try to make their living of the land. Click here to explore the continuing series.