At A Glance: Fresh Fruit Pilot
Doug Davis, director of foodservice at the 3,800-student Burlington (Vt.) School District, says his job is to feed students—no matter where they live. “Our job in a nutshell is to create food access, and if we can figure out a way to create food access for more kids, then that’s been a successful day,” Davis says.
For Davis, feeding students isn’t just a job, it’s a passion. This year, Davis has expanded that passion for serving children quality, nutritious meals outside the confines of his district to Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. Through a partnership with the Vermont Institute on the Caribbean and Shelburne Farms’ Healthy Neighborhood Healthy Kids program, Davis and the Burlington School Food Project have set up a pilot farm-to-school fruit project at two of Puerto Plata’s schools.
Beginnings: The foodservice department at the Burlington School District is known for its farm-to-school program. In 2003, Davis helped create the Burlington Food Council, a collaboration of the district, local farms, area hospitals and universities and VT FEED, a collection of non-profits that help set up farm-to-school programs. With the support of the council, Davis created a nationally recognized farm-to-school program. In 2008, the department purchased more than 15,000 pounds of locally grown produce. [To learn more about Burlington’s program, see “Community Supporter,” FSD July 2008.]
One of the farms Davis purchases local produce from is Shelburne Farms. Shelburne Farms has an educational component, and one of the programs is called Healthy Neighborhoods Healthy Kids, which helps teach students about creating sustainable communities. Shelburne Farms has partnered with the Vermont Institute on the Caribbean, a non-profit that establishes connections between the United States and Caribbean countries, to create sustainable projects and people-to-people exchanges.
Through the institute, Burlington and Puerto Plata have become sister cities. One of the projects the institute implemented in Puerto Plata is Healthy Neighborhoods Healthy Kids. Through the project, playgrounds at two schools were cleaned up and a group of Little League baseball players from Puerto Plata visited Burlington in the fall of 2007. During the visit, the students toured one of Davis’s high schools.
“The students saw our salad bar and they were pretty impressed,” Davis says. “We were in our bountiful harvest and I would say everything on my line was local and much of it was organic. I asked about their foodservice. What’s happening is the federal government provides milk and a white roll every day for every student.
“I said to them, we have this cool relationship with local farmers and we’re bringing local food right into the schools, the money stays in the community, the farmers get a better connection to their schools, the community members get a better connection to their schools, the kids get a better connection to their own food system and, most importantly, kids eat better. So they were thinking that would be cool, we should try that sometime. I thought they learned a little bit about my system and I learned a little about their system. I honestly thought that was where it was going to end.”
As it turns out, this was only the beginning of a partnership between Davis and the Burlington School District and the students in Puerto Plata.
Establishing a partnership: In May 2008, Davis was approached by Marisha Kazeniac, founder and executive director of the Vermont Institute on the Caribbean. “She asked if I would be
interested in trying to mirror some of
the farm-to-school work I had done in Burlington down in the DR,” Davis says. “Apparently some of the folks who had visited took some of that back and were speaking with the government officials down there to get money and permission. I said, sure, I’d try it.”
Through Kazeniac’s contacts in Puerto Plata, Davis and Kazeniac started setting up a pilot in February 2009 that would deliver locally grown fruit to students. Because of the work already being done with the Healthy Neighborhood Healthy Kids program, it was decided that the best place to start the fresh fruit pilot would be in the two schools where the program had been implemented. The problem with this for Davis was that the work was being done only with fourth- and fifth-grade students. The schools in Puerto Plata are from kindergarten to eighth grade. “You can’t pick who you are going to feed and who you aren’t,” Davis says. “Part of that is just my life and my passion. I said we are not going to do this if we can’t feed everybody. We got permission to do that.”
After working with local farmers, government officials and the schools, a plan was put in place to distribute fruit to the students.
In April, Davis made another trip to Puerto Plata to oversee the distribution of food. About 3,000 locally grown organic bananas were distributed to the students. “What was really interesting was we delivered these bananas to the classrooms and the kids were genuinely hungry and genuinely grateful,” Davis says. “It’s a loud culture and there is a lot of laughing, joking and high-volume speaking. When you eat something and your body starts to take in all the vitamins and nutrients, it’s a very calming and settling feeling. You could feel that in the classroom. Things mellowed a little bit. When the kids were bringing the garbage cans down at the end of the day, all the bananas were consumed. There was no wasted or leftover fruit.”
In addition to the bananas, the classrooms received Spanish-language educational materials provided by
the University of Vermont. Davis said some of the teachers used the pilot as an opportunity to incorporate nutrition into the day’s lessons. “The teachers used us as a springboard to show the children the importance of eating local and organic,” Davis says. “We’re not pushing organic. It just so happens that the farmers are so poor they can’t afford to fertilize their fields, so by default their food is organic.”
There was enough money left over that more bananas were distributed in May. “Now we are trying to set up a model where local businesses down there will help fund this,” Davis says. “We are talking about raising 12 cents per child per time that we are doing this, which is not a lot of money. It’s like $360 a month if we were going to do this one time a month. We’re talking about $60,000 to feed every child every day, which is not a lot of money. The huge advantage is that the money raised and spent on food goes right back into their own community. It creates a feeling of connection and commitment between the community and school.
“Farm to school is successful in Burlington because the program sustains itself financially,” Davis adds. “I was not going down there to say, give me your money and I’ll feed your kids better. My goal was to come up with a system that works within the confines of what they are already doing.”
Davis doesn’t want to stop at fruit. The schools do not have drinking water and Davis hopes to set up solar ovens in the classrooms to pasteurize water. “It’s very simple; it’s just a cardboard template and aluminum foil. It creates enough heat to heat the water up to a temperature that it’s safe enough to drink. We can build that out of materials that are readily available so the students can bring that knowledge home.” Davis hopes that with the solar ovens, the schools could then cook rice and beans for the students to eat in addition to the milk and bread.
“That’s pretty grandiose, honestly,” Davis admits. “We struggled to get the infrastructure in place to pass out a banana. So to think that we can do water and rice and beans is a pretty tall order. But it’s so important now, especially with the economy, that we can’t lose sight that there are so many hungry kids and families.”