When celebrity chef Jamie Oliver found students at an English elementary school eating a quarter-ton of chips each week in lunches that cost less to make than those at nearby prisons, he did something completely unexpected. He signed up as a lunch lady — bringing his fame, culinary skill and television production crew. In the four-episode series that followed, the ebullient Mr. Oliver faced student revolts, cafeterias losing money, and parents smuggling junk food over school fences. Yet by the time the shows aired, the British government had promised £280 million [US$ 579 million] to improve school lunches.
Martha’s Vineyard does not have a celebrity chef to revolutionize its cafeteria food, but on Tuesday, members of the Island Grown Initiative will join with parents, teachers, farmers and lunch ladies to try their hand at changing school lunch. The transformation begins, according to Ali Berlow, executive director of the initiative, with a new Vineyard chapter of a national program called Farm to School.
Although the ideas behind it date back decades, the official Farm to School program began in 2000 with a goal of connecting schools with nearby farms to serve healthy school meals, educate students about nutrition, and support local farmers. Massachusetts quickly sprang to the forefront. Already the statewide project has helped more than 70 public school districts, 13 universities and colleges, and six private schools to build and sustain connections with local agriculture and raise the quality of food served during school hours.
In recent years, Island schools have also made improvements. Edgartown students can visit a fresh salad bar. Students at all schools are offered pizza made with whole wheat crust. And those in Tisbury can buy fresh fruit smoothies twice a week during lunch.
Still, neither the Chilmark nor the West Tisbury school has a functioning kitchen. Meals, delivered each morning from the high school, sit and wait on trays until lunch time. In Chilmark, one hot meal is served each week — pizza. Chilmark School principal Diane Gandy said on average, only 10 students out of the school’s 40 purchase lunch.
Tina Miller, a member of the West Tisbury School advisory committee, estimated that 70 per cent of the school’s students bring lunch from home, including her two sons.
“It’s a drag. I have to make lunch every day,” said Mrs. Miller, a private chef and general manager at Plum TV. “But ... I can afford and can take the time to. There are tons of kids who don’t have that opportunity and they are forced to eat school lunch every day.”
Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James Weiss said this week that Oak Bluffs and Edgartown schools have a large number of students participating in the school lunch program. Tisbury has what he called medium participation. Margaret Regan, principal at the high school, estimated 85 per cent of high school students buy their lunch each day.
The only Island school to serve lunches made from scratch is the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School. It is also the only school to incorporate Island produce — cucumbers and tomatoes from Whippoorwill Farm, kale and squash from the FARM Institute — into meals. Lunch at the charter school costs $2.75, compared to $2 at other Island schools. But Christina Napolitan, charter school food service director, estimated that 70 per cent of students and 50 per cent of teachers buy lunch there each day. “People like the idea that the food is made from scratch,” she said this week from the school kitchen. “It’s tasty and it’s not just frozen chicken nuggets plopped on a plate with ketchup.”
The increase in price for a fresh lunch with local produce is a hurdle the program will have to overcome. “If this were to double costs, we would have to raise prices and that’s not going to happen,” Dr. Weiss said.
Grants are available from the state and federal governments, and the Island Grown Initiative has already begun applying, but Mrs. Berlow acknowledged the group will have to get creative when it comes to funding. “We know it could be a long haul,” she said. “There are no quick fixes.”
Jim Athearn of Morning Glory Farm said this week he would love to see more local produce in the schools. “Kids would get fresh, good food and, with that, they would get used to seeing and tasting fresh, good food,” he said.
But he acknowledged the struggles a Vineyard farmer would face. Schools are not in session at the peak of the produce season, local produce would cost more, and more crops would require more land.
Melinda DeFeo, educational director at the FARM Institute in Katama, said farmers would need to plan ahead with local schools. “It’s going to take farmers to commit a crop or crops to either a school-wide system or to individual schools,” she said.
Mrs. DeFeo for years has been trying to rethink school lunches on the Island. “We need to give kids a hands-on respect for what it takes to grow food. It is something our young people are losing,” she said.
Mrs. Berlow agreed. “We send our kids off to school and teach them about nutrition, but we can’t feed them right,” she said. “We are trying to raise thinkers and are keeping our kids really busy. They’re going from 7 a.m. to 10 at night. That takes a lot of energy, they need proper fuel.”
Anyone interested in school lunch is invited to the Dec. 4 meeting hosted by Island Grown Initiative to create the Vineyard Farm to School program. Following a brief introduction, attendees will break into groups by town to discuss the individual needs of each school. “Maybe for one school a program would be a farm visit. Maybe it would be one meal cooked at the school a week, or a garden, or working nutrition into the curriculum — there are a lot of points of entry,” said Mrs. Berlow.
The meeting will take place at 7 p.m. at the Island Co-housing common house and Mrs. Berlow said it is just a first step. “A lot of what we need to do is find out what is possible,” she said, a comment Mrs. DeFeo echoed. “We don’t want to just feed kids a fresh Island carrot in their lunch, but teach them what that carrot represents to them in their community,” she said. “But the first thing is that carrot. Dangle that carrot in front of them and we’ll see where we can go.”