TOWNSHEND, Vt. (WCAX) Hunger Free Vermont estimates nearly 18,000 children in the state live in food insecure households. That means, about 15 percent of kids don't have regular access to nutritious food. That can put them at risk for poor health, developmental delays, worse academic performance, and behavioral issues.
In Townshend, Scott Fleishman shows us how a chef is on a mission to change that.
It's another busy morning in the cafeteria of Leland and Gray High School. Chef Chris Parker leads the way here. After just a couple of years working at NewBrook Elementary in Newfane, he's now the food service director for the West River Education District.
"Once I got into it, I realized that the children that we're feeding, unfortunately aren't always eating at home or what they are eating isn't the best quality," says Chef Parker.
So, Chef Parker has made it his mission to change that. He created Seed2Tray. A program that feeds all 600 children in the district, healthy meals from scratch, for free, regardless of their economic situation.
Students also have the option to take extra food home for an added meal.
Chef Parker says, "It's children. It's their education. We're supplying them with their gym supplies, pencils, paper, everything that they need for school, but we're not giving them the fuel to engage their brains."
Universal meals in this district are made possible by taxpayers under what's called Provision Two, which was passed by the town board.
According to Chef Parker, it will cost $52,000 to feed the students in the West River Education District. For breakfast and lunch, that's $93 per student for the entire year. Without Provision Two, it would cost about $100 each month, per student.
Tammy Mosher says, "When poverty walks in the door of a school, they have all of the stresses of I wonder if I'll be able to afford lunch today."
Tammy Mosher is the executive director of the Stratton Foundation. The community-based nonprofit, which focuses on challenges in Southern Vermont, gave a $25,000 grant to allow Seed2Tray to grow.
"By providing food for all of the students, it erases the stigma, it erases the stress," says Mosher.
The Stratton Foundation isn't the only group pitching in. Local farms like Dutton and Riverbend are providing the food. One local family provides 10 free gallons of maple syrup a month. The school also grows food in its own garden.
"We just want them to be exposed to what is out there," says Chef Parker.
Emma Stover says, "It's like a home cooked meal at your own school."
Sophomore Emma Stover, avoided the cafeteria last year, because she didn't like the food being served. Now, with a variety of healthy options, she says there's less hunger and more focus.
"I feel like I've had a full meal at lunch, so I don't have to snack as little in the day which gets more work done for me as I don't have to get out snacks," says Stover.
"So far, I think my favorite has been a really great mac and cheese," says Samantha Harlow.
Teachers like Samantha Harlow are noticing the difference.
Harlow says, "I hear from the students that they are really enjoying it and that there all more people eating here and it's brought the community closer together I think."
"Here there's a real sense of appreciation from the students. There's a little bit of a learning curve on that to get the kids to actually come back around to real food, but they're getting it and they're extremely happy with it," says Chef Parker.
One of Chef Parker's goals is to implement some form of the Seed2Tray program statewide. He's no stranger to making the 80-plus mile trip to Montpelier to speak with local lawmakers. In fact, Chef Parker and some other food service directors from around Vermont recently met with the staff of Senator Bernie Sanders, who recently introduced a bill to provide universal meals nationwide."
Chef Parker says, "To be a food service director in Vermont and to be a part of that and to know that is our work that's going out there to the rest of the country, it's honoring. It's flattering, but it's the right thing to do."
Fulfillment to this chef, keeping Vermont's students full. In Townshend, Scott Fleishman, Channel 3 News.