“You haven’t been to the Lunchbox? You have to go!” I heard many variations on this refrain in June while reporting a story in Newport in June. Apparently, this colorful food truck that serves delicious (and free) tacos to kids throughout the summer was a must-try for adults, too.
Our paths did not cross that June day, but last week I resolved to track down the Lunchbox before summer ended. I raced from Burlington to North Troy for the truck’s weekly Wednesday session on Railroad Street. All I found was a dusty, sunbaked lot. “I saw it earlier today,” said a woman outside the post office. “Perhaps it left already?”
Turns out, the phantom Lunchbox was not running on the first day of school. Yet all through the summer, the truck — and Meghan Stotko, the woman who cooks and delivers its food — served thousands of fresh-off-the-farm tacos, from Newport’s Main Street to the Grace United Methodist Church in Canaan to the Orleans County Fair.
The Lunchbox is the brainchild of Green Mountain Farm-to-School, an umbrella organization in the Northeast Kingdom that aims to connect kids to fresh, local food in imaginative ways. If scarcity is the mother of invention, then the challenges of poverty and a short growing season have blessed the Kingdom with one of the most innovative farm-to-school programs in the state. Its food truck not only serves lunches but vends local carrots, greens, tomatoes, eggs and other staples as a mobile market, plus holds an occasional workshop such as “Breaking Down a Whole Chicken.”
Such folksy earthiness might seem to go hand in hand with the agrarian landscape of the Kingdom, but despite its agricultural wealth, the NEK can be a tundra when it comes to healthy eating. Two years ago, when the USDA mapped the country for food deserts — that is, places where residents have limited access to fresh food — two Vermont locales landed on the list: Winooski, and an entire swath of the Kingdom.
Here the poverty level (18 percent) is twice the state average, nearly a third of children are considered obese and more than 50 percent of all kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. These are a few of the reasons why Katherine Sims founded GMFTS five years ago, and why she was beaming last week as she walked around a garden in front of the Lowell Graded School.
In this verdant plot along Route 100, corncobs poked from spindly stalks, the wispy green heads of carrots spread along the ground and sunflowers swayed in the wind. Nearby, a pumpkin patch was full of tiny orange orbs.
Rather than the work of a master gardener, this plot is planted and tended by the school’s students as part of their own farm-to-school program. “It still amazes me. They planted the seeds, they tended them and they’ll harvest all of this,” Sims said as she plucked a few golden cherry tomatoes from the plants. This garden is one of 28 scattered around the Kingdom. “It’s so powerful,” she added.
Sims, 31, first came to the Kingdom during a semester she took off from college to work as an intern with Jack and Anne Lazor at Butterworks Farm in Westfield. “I fell in love,” said Sims, with both the lifestyle and the landscape. Back at Yale University, she was majoring in art history and sustainable architecture, but the pull of food production was strong — she helped found a sustainable farm at the school.
Sims also worked at Berry Creek Farm and Lazy Lady Farm that same semester, and ended up settling in the NEK. “I wanted to learn more about food,” said Sims. “Like everyone, I was surprised this was considered a food desert.”
Anyone who has spent time in the Northeast Kingdom knows its hills are dotted with small farms. Yet nary a school garden was to be found, at least until the Jay/Westfield Joint Elementary School in Jay built a small one in 2005 to educate students about agriculture and nutrition.
The next year, one garden grew to five — including the one in Lowell. In 2008, what was considered a pilot program morphed into GMFTS, created via grants and donations to support school gardens, nutrition education and field trips to acquaint students with farms.
Farm-to-school programs weren’t exactly new in the state; they’d been around at least since the late ’90s, points out the Vermont director of the National Farm to School Network, Anne Bijur. “Vermont is seen as one of the leaders in the farm-to-school movement,” she notes, adding that her network’s leadership hopes to have some form of farm-to-school program at every Vermont school by 2020.
Yet GMFTS differs from a district-wide program in both structure and scope. It now has a board and an all-female staff of 11, some of them AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers for school outreach. An after-school program called Sprouts teaches students to grow and cook their own food; “Grow a Row” encourages local gardeners to grow an extra row of fruit or veggies for their local school; and, of course, the Lunchbox doles out free tacos to hungry kids.
As she stood under the sunflowers in the Lowell garden, Sims seemed most animated about GMFTS’ new Harvest of the Month program, which spotlights a different vegetable, grain or fruit every month — tomatoes in September, for instance. Its recipes, posters and flyers aim to encourage both cooks and students to get cozy with the seasonal vegetable of the moment. (“There are over 1000 varieties of tomatoes,” reads the colorful tomato flyer, which lists a few varieties including Copia beefsteak and Amish Paste.) “Schools are hungry for this type of information,” Sims unintentionally punned. She’d like to see Harvest of the Month grow to encompass the entire state.
Though the Lowell garden was full of tomatoes, kale and corn, school gardens can’t possibly supply every meal at the schools, Sims noted. But growing and picking the food themselves gives students a huge motivator to eat it. “If they [the lunch-room personnel] mention it’s from the garden, they all want to try it,” Sims said with a laugh — whether the food in question be blueberries or collard greens.
To fill in the food gaps, four years ago GMFTS began coordinating the sale of produce from local farms to schools via Farm Direct, picking up produce and delivering it to cafeterias. Jana Lovejoy, who raises cows, pigs and chickens on Newport’s Apple Ledge Farm, started selling some of her eggs via Farm Direct this spring. Lovejoy, who moved from Colorado to the Kingdom with her family, said she’s excited to raise awareness of local food in a place where she still sees so much need.
“We’re always very surprised that in the Northeast Kingdom, being an agricultural place, kids don’t know where carrots come from. It’s a huge shocker,” Lovejoy said. “And not even just the children. The community around us sometimes seems to be confused as to what good food means.”
At the Lyndon Institute in Lyndon Center, 38 raised beds and a greenhouse provide the students with hundreds of pounds of tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and beans in the summer and fall. Even so, food service director Craig Locarno — a former professional chef — said the school has been an enthusiastic Farm Direct customer for two years. He buys all of his yogurt and apples from the program, “and $1000 a week in local beef” for burgers.
However, Locarno still struggles with bringing the lessons of the garden into the classroom, and said he thinks most farm-to-school programs are, by their nature, skewed toward K-8 kids. “I respect it, but high school is where they [the kids] become young adults, where they’re changing their lives and making decisions,” he noted.
Twice a week, Locarno tries to bring local produce into the classroom to let students taste veggies — raw one day, cooked the next. “They need to be seeing fresh Swiss chard,” he said, “so they’re able to go to the farmers market or to the grocery store and know what chard tastes like.”
This year, Sims said, Farm Direct has connected 70 institutions, including nursing homes and prisons, with $230,000 worth of food from local farms. The reach of GMFTS has grown so broad that it’s hit a plateau in terms of being able to add new schools. Hence programs such as Harvest of the Month, where information serves in lieu of food deliveries and volunteer visits.
Looking forward, Sims said she hopes to secure funding to expand the Lunchbox’s reach to more communities, as well as to build more classes into its schedule. And Vermonters outside the Kingdom may eventually get a taste of her policy approach. Last year, Sims ran against incumbent Mark Higley to be a state representative from Orleans-Lamoille. “I lost by 36 votes,” she said with a spark in her eye. Will she run again? “Maybe,” Sims said coyly.
One thing I know for sure: Lunchbox tacos are in my future. I’ll just have to wait a few more seasons, until next summer when it rolls again.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Building a Better Lunchbox."