SEEDS FOR CHANGE: Cafeterias offer Healthy Alternatives

seedsForChange

The local and orga nic movement is gaining momentum. Th e increasing healthy options at local grocery stores make it easier for parents to ensure that their children eat well in the home, but what about when the kids leave for school?

That’s where Aleisha and Brian Gibbons come in. Th ey have created Berkshire Organics SEEDS (Sustainable Education Every Day for Students), an organization that purchases food from local farms at a wholesale cost and delivers it to schools at the same price.

“School lunches have been dominated by processed foods such as pizza and chicken nuggets,” says Aleisha Gibbons, co-founder and board member. “The schools want to re-introduce fresh, local produce, but their obstacle is accessing it at an affordable price.”

Gibbons and her husband Brian founded the organization to provide Berkshire County schools with easier and more aff ordable access to healthy, local food each week. They had already forged the farming connections and acquired access to storage space and delivery vehicles through owning the Berkshire Organics Market on Dalton Division Road in Dalton, Massachusetts. Because they run both the nonprofit SEEDS and the for-profit Berkshire Organics Market, juggling both aspects has proved challenging.

“At one point we were losing money because our time was being taken up by so much of the SEEDS programs,” says Brian . “I was running around making deliveries myself.”

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Aleisha and Brian Gibbons. Above: CSA box for a customer.

He said the program has more people involved in helping with the basics of deliveries, but now, it’s all about getting the word out and raising money. Currently, Brian and Aleisha rely on grants and fundraising, including hosting yearly movies at the Beacon Theatre with all proceeds going to SEEDS. In the past they’ve featured Farmageddon and Genetic Roulette, but this year since their goal is to off er the SEEDS service to all of Berkshire County, more fundraising will be necessary. To date, SEEDS has worked with 12 Pittsfield Schools in addition to schools in Dalton, Adams, Cheshire and Williamstown, with further interest from surrounding schools.

The farms that SEEDS buys from have processing stations that cut, dice and peel the vegetables, turning them into kid-friendly snacks like sweet potato fries and carrot sticks, at no extra work for the cafeteria staff. SEEDS also has access to very affordable meats such as local ground beef from farmers who have a hard time selling the remaining product after all of the prime steak cuts are bought. Through doing business with these farmers, Gibbons calls it a “win-win” situation for both the farms and the schools.

Monument Mountain High School recently began working with SEEDS after a meeting in January where Brian answered questions from the school staff and students regarding ways in which to collaborate. Because the school had faced speed bumps in the past when trying to bring healthy food in the cafeterias, they initially met SEEDS with some skepticism.

“Not everything we have tried has gone smoothly,” says senior Alison Lee, one of the students on the food committee who attended the meeting. But Lee is nothing but optimistic. According to her, Gibbons offered an answer to almost every logistical issue the food service staff and food committee has had to face during the process. “The meeting went fantastically, better than we could have ever expected,” says Lee.

Senior and student senate president Charlie Gibson also attended the meeting. Gibson had more than one reason for pushing for the collaboration. The first: It will help the understaffed cafeteria workers achieve the goals they originally set out to accomplish. The second involves a much bigger picture.

“We have so many food-related resources, many of which deal with local produce and healthy eating,” says Gibson. “We saw a huge disconnect between the image of food in our community as opposed to the image of food in our schools and wanted to sort of bridge that gap.”

Sylvana Bryan, nutrition director of Pittsfield Public Schools, has collaborated with the organization from the beginning and agrees to its affordability and success. “[SEEDS] makes it easy for us to bring food into our district,” says Bryan. She adds that bringing healthy food into the cafeterias is part of the learning experience. “We’re teaching kids how to be healthy and how to eat for the rest of their lives.”

She said the biggest problem with healthy food in the school system came in the 1980s when the USDA loosened the guidelines on food services because schools were struggling. At this time, “a la carte” was introduced to cafeterias, an additional option for students to buy snacks and sweets. What was the result? Schools finally obtained the money to pay expenses without having to adhere to the health guidelines of the traditional meal. But now, the recent Mass Nutrition Bill has created a stricter, healthier set of guidelines that’s changed most of the profit-making a la carte menu.

“There’s going to be bumps in the road, but as kids get used to this, things will work out for the best because it’s the right thing to be doing,” says Bryan. She refers to it as the “quiet revolution,” one that SEEDS is very much a part of.

From south to north county, this “quiet revolution” takes time, perseverance and money. Aleisha and Brian Gibbons have numerous visions, including someday expanding the SEEDS organization to involve more education and to eventually bring farmers into the classrooms to talk to the kids. To get involved or make donations, contact info@berkshireorganics.com. For more information on Berkshire Organics, visit BerkshireOrganics.com.

Laura Field is a writer who grew up on a small farm in Cheshire, Massachusetts. She works at Hancock Shaker Village, where she is a farm educator, animal handler and oxen trainer. Over the years, her comical encounters with the farm critters in her life have led to a growing fascination with the animals (especially the chickens) and she someday hopes to open her own educational farm.

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Carrots, Lakeside Organics, Hadley, MA. Apples, Hilltop
Orchard, Richmond, MA (Photographs courtesy of SEEDS)

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