School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Doug, Heather and Burlington’s Team!


Doug Davis, SNS, Food Service Director, and Heather Torrey, MS, RD, SNS, Assistant Director, have been working together at Burlington School Food Project for the past four school years. The district has 4,000 enrolled students with about 50 percent being eligible for free/reduced meals pre-pandemic, when their ADP was 65 percent at both breakfast and lunch. Even though both Heather and Doug were out of state when COVID-19 hit, within 48 hours of school closures they were serving meals using a completely new service model. The forty department employees were divided into pods of 10 and they started serving one bag with one day of meals curbside for approximately 500 students, plus meals for the homeless housed in local hotels (3 meals a day, 7 days per week). Both Doug and Heather admit that things were very tough in the beginning and they were able to make it through because of extraordinary assistance from other school employees, like the paraprofessionals who organized and staffed food distribution points. They also deeply appreciate the support for the Vermont state child nutrition agency and their food distributor Reinhart Foodservice LLC.

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Doug and Heather are quick to acknowledge the operational challenges that were top-of-mind, especially in the first weeks of school closures. Like most other districts, they struggled with staffing issues, supply chain disruptions, and transportation concerns. However they also stress the underlying emotional challenges as well. Even though everyone was focused on the need to feed children, there was anxiety about a deadly disease with lots of unknowns for those who did not have an option to work remotely. Heather admits that she worried about “being the one to take out my whole team.”

Meal Kit distribution during a Vermont winter requires the right vehicles and equipment

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

The successes of the Burlington School Food Project over the past year demonstrate how a team came together, got work done and built a unique model to feed children. After a participation dip in the summer, the Burlington team is now distributing 20,000 quality meals per week in meal kits containing 7 breakfasts, 7 lunches, 7 suppers, and 7 snacks. There is a weekly vegetarian option, often based on foods reflecting the diversity of Burlington (where over 40 languages are spoken in a high school of 1,000 students). 

Although there were more unknowns than knowns over the year, Heather and Doug are not surprised about what the team was able to do. The Burlington School Food Project has worked hard to be integrated into the education process of the district and into sustainable agriculture in Vermont. In March 2021, they partnered with the local Couching Lion Maple Farm and distributed a Harvest of the Month maple syrup jug in every meal kit. The farm is owned by a teacher in the district, making more connections between education, local agriculture, and delicious meals for children. Moving forward, Burlington School Food Project plans more direct contact with Vermont farmers and food producers. Since they know that the Meal Box model will continue through September, they have started calling local farmers and food producers with a heads up about the volume the district will need so they can plan their planting and harvest schedule. “Leveraging buying power to support the local economy and provide high quality foods to our families has been — and will continue to be a core focus for our program.”

Couching Lion Maple Syrup, Vermont Harvest of the Month

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Rather than a procedure or a food product, the Burlington School Food Project will take a mindset into the future. As Doug Davis said, “I will never look at a problem or situation and think we cannot do that. I now know that there is nothing that we cannot do. We can meet any challenge.

Heather has a slightly different take: “I went back to my dietetics basics with the ADIME model to constantly assess what we are doing and how we can make it better. We started curbside meal service with one model, saw that we were not reaching as many folks as it should, and we switched it up. Now we’re in the M/E phase of our Family Meal Kits and make subtle tweaks each week to better meet the needs of our community.”

Classic and Vegetarian Meal Kits

31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: #MustHave Recipe Resources

There are many excellent resources for standardized school recipes – from USDA, NFSMI, state Team Nutrition Programs (ex., Michigan and Iowa), food companies (ex., Norpac Foods) and producer commodity groups (ex,. American Egg Board and The Mushroom Council). Remember, you do NOT have to reinvent the ‘wheel,’ you can always adapt recipes to fit your kitchen and your customers! In final six blogs in this series, I’m exploring a variety recipe sources for school meals. Today, I share two MUST-HAVES – from Oklahoma and Vermont.

The Oklahoma Farm to School Cookbook has a great name: Kidchen Expedition. It also has great recipes for serving locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables in schools. There are eight sections covering everything from Broccoli to Zucchini, along with a nice selection of dips and dressings. Two recipes are shown on this slide – more great names, Underground Candy (aka roasted root veggies) and Rainbow Salsa. The cookbook can be downloaded in large file – or section by section – and there are family-size recipes to send home with your students.


By now I hope that every school nutrition program has an electronic – or hard – copy of Vermont FEED’s New School Cuisine: Nutritious and Seasonal Recipes for School Cooks by School Cooks. This is a very impressive first-ever effort by public school cooks to write a hands-on cookbook for their peers. It is written for school cooks, by school cooks and includes totally kid-tested recipes, featuring local, seasonal ingredients and farm to school resources. I have met several of the cooks who tested the recipes – and I have seen the recipes being served at many schools. This gorgeous Vermont Maple Apple French Toast Bake had just come out of the oven at Goddard Elementary in Worcester, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, I did not get to stay for brunch for lunch.

Vermont Maple Apple French Toast Bake

Vermont Maple Apple
French Toast Bake

Every school needs a copy of New School Cuisine: Nutritious and Seasonal Recipes for School Cooks by School Cooks on their computer or book shelf – the photos alone make it worth your while! Get yours today!



31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: Taste Tests Are Terrific

Two FB photos inspired today’s post – both from districts that I admire. The first is from Lessons from the Lunch Lady, aka Wendy Garman who had the pleasure of meeting at SNAPa meeting last summer. Wendy dedicates her page “to all the little minds I have been blessed to refuel and to all the child nutrition employees who make feeding children a priority” – and often shares the darnedest thins that her small customers say.

Today’s Wendy’s photo showcased a Taste Test of simple roasted kale chips. I was impressed that Wendy was even doing a Taste Test during the holiday rush – and even more impressed with the results she reported: “‘I wish you brought more kale! This stuff is great,’ said a third grader sampling roasted kale chips today. I had very low expectations for this sampling as dark green veggies are not usually listed among kids’ favorites. It was exciting to see how willing everyone was to give it a try and even more amazed to learn that nearly 90 percent of the class enjoyed it.” Plus, the kale was a lovely holiday green!

Roasted Kale Chip Taste Test, Lessons from The Lunch Lady

Roasted Kale Chip Taste Test, Lessons from The Lunch Lady

Lesson learned from this Taste Test (and nearly every other one ever done) – children’s reactions to food are often very different that we expect. In fact, the fewer expectations that the adults have, the more likely children are to experience new foods for themselves. Often their reaction is more positive than we expect.

My second inspiration was a series of photos from EATS (Eat Awesome Things at School) Park City from a Taste Test of butternut squash. I was first impressed by the beautifully appealing display of the samples. There are some benefits of serving samples in a resort town like Park City, Utah – the “roasted Butternut Squash was perfectly cooked by the esteemed The Farm Restaurant at Canyons Resort.”

Butternut Squash Taste Test, EATS Park City, Utah

Butternut Squash Taste Test, EATS Park City, Utah

EATS Park City is doing a really terrific job of engaging community support for #RealSchoolFood. I had the pleasure of meeting with EATS Park City last summer and am impressed with how positively they are working with the school nutrition program and other local businesses. The organically grown squash came from Parker Produce, a 140 year old farm in northern Utah – and the Taste Tests are funded by The Park City Community Foundation and the Park City Sunrise Rotary Club

It is important to remember that while the town has many wealthy visitors a significant number of students have not been exposed to fine dining in local restaurants – or to foods like butternut squash. One elementary school student was concern that the squash contained nuts!

Middle School Students Taste Roasted Butternut Squash

Middle School Students Taste Roasted Butternut Squash

Another lesson learned: Children may perceive new foods in ways that we cannot even imagine, especially if the food item is an everyday food for us. While Taste Tests may seem easy enough – just put out samples and have kids eat them, it can also be helpful to take a more structured approach. Fortunately, there are two great resources – both free for downloading – to help you make the most of tasting #RealSchoolFood:

In both these guides you will find tips and forms to make Taste Tests more fun, more successful and more effective in expanding student food horizons. Here are some examples of the forms from the Vermont FEED Guide.

Sample pages from Vermont Feed's Guide To Taste Testing Local Foods In Schools

Sample pages from Vermont Feed’s Guide To Taste Testing Local Foods In Schools