Farm Bounty on the School Lunch Tray

Oct 14, 2015

Ann Butler of Edible Education fields questions from children at St. Andrew's School, while also trying to control her chicken.

Virginia recently celebrated farm-to-school week, highlighting the connection between farmers around the state and what’s on the tray in the lunch line.

But for one private school in Richmond, farm-to-table is more than just one week out of the year.

St. Andrews Elementary School in Richmond had some unusual visitors for lunch earlier this month -- chickens.

The two Rhode Island Reds were part of a lesson on healthy eating. Kindergarteners through fifth graders got to learn what the chickens eat, and how their diet affects the eggs they produce.

The creative lesson is one part of a large effort by the school to revamp not just the food it serves, but the entire education that comes along with it.

Ann Butler is with Edible Education, the company St. Andrews has hired to help them in the process.

“You cannot just hand kids great food and say ‘Here eat it,’ healthy food say ‘Eat it. You have to do this with them,” says Butler.

Butler is trying to teach kids first-hand where their food comes from. The next step is allowing them to form and express their own opinions.  

"Did you like it today? Did you not?” Butler asks. “After we serve the lunch then we sit with them and talk to them about what they like, what they don't like. The kids drive the menus here."

St. Andrews’ school lunch menus include quinoa and sweet potato tots. Food in schools across the country is changing. Since 2010, the USDA, along with push from First Lady Michelle Obama, has placed a renewed focus on healthy eating.

But St. Andrews has taken things one step further. For more than a year now, they've been hosting cooking classes for the families they serve, and making as many things as possible from scratch.

At the salad bar, students fill their plates with vegetables delivered from a local farmer. The ranch dressing was made by the school chef, who has a degree in culinary arts. But, says Butler, it isn’t cheap.

St. Andrews’ school population is low income, so they get federal funds to help support the program. They also work to make ends meet.

“We have to invest additional money into the program,” says Cyndy Weldon-Lassiter, the head of St. Andrew's. “When we go out and talk to donors or we bring donors into the school, or we write grants, we're talking about the nutrition program and we've had tremendous support for it.”

That support allows the school to spend about one dollar more per each meal than the national average. Then, there's infrastructure. The kitchen renovation cost St. Andrews $20,000. Many public schools, don't even have stoves.

“When larger districts are thinking about something like this they may want to consider one school at a time,” says Weldon-Lassiter.

That's exactly what Richmond Public Schools is considering. The school system received a planning grant from the USDA two years ago, now they're hoping a successful pilot program could attract more funds. It’s not a bad bet, the USDA has millions in grant funding through the Farm to Schools program.

Back at St. Andrew’s, Ann Butler admits money is a challenge, but says the biggest challenge is mindset.

“You've got to have a school that wants the change,” Butler says. “I can't convince you to make the change. I was sitting down with a principle and they said ‘Well kids don’t want to eat this kind of food.’ And I’m like ‘You’re right. They don’t want to eat this kind of food until we convince them they do want to eat this kind of food. Give us a couple months, we’ll convince them.”

Richmond Public Schools is hoping to have its pilot program in place sometime this spring.