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How Doug Davis Revolutionized the Burlington School Food Program


Published April 24, 2013 at 5:04 a.m.

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Doug Davis

On a recent Thursday evening in the Burlington High School cafeteria, Burlington School Food Project director Doug Davis stood before a small group of Burmese and Bhutanese families. The New Americans were recent additions to the greater Burlington community; each had been in the country for less than a year and a half, and so Davis was offering a crash course in the American school lunch system.

Davis, a boyish 47, held up a cartoon picture of a pig, followed by ones of a chicken and a cow, then paused to let the interpreters on hand translate. The signs are one tool cafeteria staff use to identify the main ingredients of any dish coming out of the kitchen. Gone are the days of mystery meat — and, worse, of confusing meals with unspecified ingredients that might violate a student’s cultural or religious dietary practices.

The small community dinner marked the first time that the Burlington School Food Project had invited a targeted group of families into the school for a meal. Adapting to changing demographics — a necessity as New American families have settled in the region — is just the beginning when it comes to the dramatic overhaul of Burlington’s school kitchens in the past decade. Under Davis’ guidance, the pattern has been out with French fries and in with kale chips.

“In a society that is largely obese, I really see our food program as part of our education in Burlington,” said Burlington School District superintendent Jeanne Collins. “Doug and Burlington really are a model for the state, and federally, that it can be done.”

Davis’ program has earned its greatest acclaim for getting local foods into school cafeterias. Burlington’s progress in the farm-to-school movement has made Davis “a national celebrity” in that world, said Shelburne Farms vice president and program director Megan Camp. Davis deflected the praise, opting instead to heap it on his team and laud the support of the school district. Either way, what’s happening in Burlington schools is remarkable.

But ask Davis about his goals for the school district and you’ll learn that local foods take second seed behind his main priority, making sure children have ample access to fresh, healthy food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that nearly 17 million children under the age of 18 don’t consistently eat enough nutritious foods.

“From day one, that’s always been very clear about Doug’s priorities,” Camp said. “He truly believes that students who aren’t hungry learn better.”

Access to local foods and to food in general, Camp and others said, go hand in hand. Bringing local food into the cafeteria eliminates the gap between “haves” and “have-nots” in the locavore movement — and it gets kids eating well.

“We know that if the students have actually met the farmer, maybe gone down to the Intervale and seen where that food is growing … they’re going to be more likely to eat those vegetables,” said Jen Cirillo, the director of professional development at Shelburne Farms. “It’s not just a carrot. It’s not just a piece of broccoli or kale. It’s Farmer Andy’s carrot. That really has impact.”

The road from French fries to Farmer Andy’s carrots was a long one in Burlington. When Davis took over the city’s school food program 17 years ago, the prevalent thinking was that, to break even, school lunch programs had to cater to wealthier students who could pay out of pocket for popular à la carte items — think French fries and pizza. Meanwhile, students who qualified for free or reduced lunches were segregated into a separate line and served different food. Davis suspected that students who qualified for the federal benefit weren’t taking advantage of it because of the stigma.

“It wasn’t handled in a way that was sensitive,” Davis said. “I don’t think anybody was trying to discriminate … [but] we don’t know what we don’t know.”

So in 1997, Davis eliminated the à la carte line: That was the beginning of change in the school cafeterias. Slowly, the number of students registering for free and reduced-rate lunches began to climb — from 30-some percent up to the district-wide 56 percent today.

Davis swapped long, rectangular tables for smaller, round ones; the noise levels in the once-chaotic cafeterias dropped immediately. In 2000, the program stopped charging for breakfast, instead opting to offer it free to every student in the district. All these initiatives aimed at changing the culture of the school nutrition program and increasing students’ access to healthful food.

Then came the big push for local foods, starting in earnest in 2003 with a three-year grant that enabled Vermont Food Education Every Day (Vermont FEED) to team up with the city of Burlington. The initiative was citywide, but in the school system it translated into taste tests at elementary schools, new school gardens and stronger relationships with farmers. Teachers began incorporating local foods into the curriculum. Along the way, the schools reached out to community members.

Today, the program sources food from 23 farms. In 2011, Burlington schools served more than 100,000 pounds of local foods; during the summer and fall, some 70 percent of food coming out of school kitchens is local. What’s more, the Burlington School Food Project, as the freestanding school nutrition program with a $2.2 million annual budget is called, is almost entirely self-sufficient; the school district only covers health insurance costs for its workers. The program’s budget is cobbled together from federal subsidies, revenue from paying students and grants.

By 2007, every school in the district had a salad bar. “The consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables shoots up considerably when kids can serve themselves,” Davis said. “It’s amazing how little leafy greens you sell when you don’t offer them.”

Kitchens also began slicing fruits and vegetables before serving them, a change that made them remarkably more appealing to students. (“A girl with braces will not bite into an apple,” noted Davis. “She will starve to death first.”)

Davis is the first to say that food itself was incidental to all of these changes, which were really about infrastructure. Before he could introduce the food, he had to get his staff trained and make sure kitchens were equipped to handle the influx. Smaller kitchens couldn’t accommodate raw poultry in the same place as raw veggies — so Davis looked for alternatives. Now the program partners with local businesses to help prepare some items in bulk, such as pizza, chicken drumsticks and falafel.

Even now, with Burlington’s program the darling of the national school-nutrition world, Davis and his colleagues aren’t resting on their laurels. Far from it. Davis heads the School Nutrition Association of Vermont and sits on the SNA’s national public policy and legislative committee.

“He doesn’t think he’s done when all he’s done is bought some local food,” said Abbie Nelson, the education coordinator at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont and the director of Vermont FEED. “What about every other kid? What about the larger system?”

Among Davis’ latest crusades is promoting a goal he admits might sound like “a real crazy, out-of-the-box desire” in this day and age: bringing free school lunch to all Vermont students, regardless of income. He’s been chipping away at realizing that plan for years on a committee spearheaded by Hunger Free Vermont.

“Maybe it’s a pipe dream,” Davis said. “But I don’t think there’s any other direction to try to go. Clearly the goal has to be universal lunch.”

In the meantime, don’t weep for the French fry-deprived children of Burlington.

“There is no doubt in my mind that every kid out there who wants French fries has access to them,” Davis said. “They can buy them for a dollar every day. So for us to be able to offer roasted sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, beets, turnips, parsnips, squash two or three times a week, those are products that those children probably don’t have access to.”

What’s more, the food in Burlington schools is surprisingly tasty — or so it seems to those who recall the school lunches of yesteryear. Today, many chefs bring culinary training into the school kitchen. More students are opting to eat school lunches — more than 50 percent at the high school. On any given day, students can choose among international cuisines such as Bosnian or Middle Eastern, or get grilled sandwiches and other dishes to order.

As Davis put it: “School lunch isn’t just chicken nuggets anymore.”

Back at the high school, among the Burmese and Bhutanese families, Davis and a few members of his staff launched into the nitty-gritty of the school nutrition program. One staffer wheeled out a sample salad bar and demonstrated to the families how to select greens, vegetables and dressing. Over at the sample breakfast bar, an interpreter gestured expressively while explaining the finer points of instant oatmeal.

If it sounds basic, that’s because it was — and needed to be. The Western concept of a salad bar can be foreign to New Americans who aren’t accustomed to raw vegetables, let alone balsamic vinaigrette. With help from the food program staff, families trickled through the food line, grabbing trays — just as their children do at lunchtime — and piling them high with salads, rice pilaf, lentils and roasted chicken.

“I didn’t want to eat anything [when I arrived],” said sophomore Binod Pradhan, who came to the U.S. from Nepal about six months ago. That’s changed, but Binod admitted he still doesn’t grab anything from the salad bar, gravitating instead toward the chicken and rice familiar to him from Nepal.

The event at the high school ran long; Davis had to speak slowly and haltingly, waiting for the interpreters to translate his brief presentation. All the same, he was able to slip out at about 7 p.m., jump into his Volvo and rush over to C.P. Smith Elementary School, the site of a school-sponsored, Thai-themed community dinner for students and their families.

“You’ve hit another home run,” gushed Thomas Fleury, C.P. Smith’s principal, when Davis came barreling through the gymnasium door, trailed by a reporter. Fleury spooned up the last of his coconut ice cream (from Island Homemade Ice Cream in Grand Isle). “You’ve got a great crew here.”

A handful of kids tore around the gymnasium while the kitchen staff packed away leftover curries, rice and chicken dishes from the evening’s meal.

Suzanne Lamphere, a 10-year veteran of the food program, remembers when C.P. Smith’s kitchen was stocked with two seasonings: salt and pepper. Pausing in her work, she gestured toward a shelf in the kitchen where more than three dozen spices were stacked three deep. During her time here, she’s seen staggering changes in food preparation.

“It’s definitely more work,” Lamphere said, “but the quality is better.”

The original print version of this story was headlined “Order Up: How Doug Davis revolutionized the Burlington school food program”