What I Learned in Farm to School Today

On June 3, I learned or relearned, a la Margaret Mead,* that even one person can change the world – or at least the community in which one lives.

Bonnie Acker, self-employed artist and volunteer at the Integrated Arts Academy in Burlington, has for the past 7 years put work boots on the ground to create an edible landscape for the school and its children in Pre-K to 5th grade. Meeting with her on this first sunny day of the Summer Study Tour was like sunshine itself. Her enthusiasm for the Burlington School Food Project as it manifests at IAA is infectious and inspiring.

Abbie Nelson of VT-FEED and Bonnie Acker with the Integrated Arts Academy in Burlington.

After Abbie Nelson of VT FEED introduced us, Miss Bonnie, as the children know her, took us on a tour of the twenty or so raised and excavated beds that encircle the playground and extend around the school. As children played soccer and climbed monkey bars, she walked backwards before us and talked about working with staff, parents, grandparents, and neighbors, in several stages over the years, to create a hands-in-the-dirt learning experience for the children. We walked past beds of kid-raised lettuce, peas, tomatoes, eggplant, blueberries, black raspberries, grapes, a few young fruit trees, and pick-your-own flowerbeds for passersby on the street.

Vandalism, she said, is nearly non-existent, since the neighborhood of mostly new Americans, in which 27 languages are spoken, is very protective of this community asset. Quite a number of the kids playing soccer or hanging around the swing set sport hijabs, dreads, and various other ethnic clothing and hairstyles. Bonnie has also conducted in-class cooking workshops for the children, making soups and hummus and other foods. Nearly every one of them, Bonnie informed us, loves kale chips and are proud to say, “We grew it!”**

The garden shed at Hunt Middle School in Burlington.

The overall theme for the day was Farm to Institution. Before meeting Bonnie, we had already visited with several other individuals changing the world for children, including Sarah Heusner, coordinator of Farm to Plate at Burlington Schools, and Doug Davis, food service director of the Burlington School District. Sarah showed us around the 1-acre garden at Lyman C. Hunt Middle School, as well as the 15’ x 15’ experimental greenhouse at Burlington High School (school mascot: Seahorse). While we ate in the high school cafeteria, Doug talked, among other goals of VT Plate to School, of instituting “universal meals” for Burlington schoolchildren – that is, making it possible for all children to eat at no cost regardless of income.

The day ended with a lecture on “Farm to Healthcare and Farm to Institution” by David Conner, UVM associate professor of Community Development and Applied Economics, and a presentation about the Real Food Challenge network by Alison Nihart, assistant to the UVM Food Systems Initiative, and Caylin McKee, sustainability manager at Sodexo, the contracted food service management company at UVM.

All and all, it was a day both mind-expanding and heart-warming.

*“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”— Margaret Mead

**Also see the Burlington Free Press article “Bonnie Acker proclaimed ‘Burlington Community Treasure’” at http://bit.ly/1JnYoZw.