Below is the transcript of an interview with Marissa Parisi, the Executive Director of Hunger Free Vermont, from October 21st, 2016 on 90.1 WRUV FM Burlington.
(You can listen to the full interview here: https://soundcloud.com/tate-kamish/interview-with-hunger-free )
TK: We are joined here today by Marissa Parisi, the Executive Director of Hunger Free Vermont. Hunger Free Vermont is a non-profit organization with the mission to end the injustice of hunger and malnutrition for all Vermonters. Since 1993, they’ve been dedicated to providing nutrition education and expanding access to nutrition programs that nourish Vermont’s children, families, and communities. Do you have anything to add to that, Marisa?
MP: No, I think that’s a good place to start.
TK: What is your specific role as Executive Director? What responsibilities do you have for the program?
MP: As the Executive Director, I am the lead person responsible for the vision and mission of the organization, to hire our really talented staff, to create a plan on how we are going to end the injustice of hunger for all of our communities in Vermont, and I do that in conjunction with the Board of Directors – who are the volunteers – who I work directly with on the leadership and governance of the organization.
TK: And how long have you been involved with the organization?
MP: I’ve been at Hunger Free Vermont as the Executive Director for just about eight years. I came on in January in 2009.
TK: One program in particular that I was wondering about was the farm-to-school lunches program; could you tell us a little bit more about how that works?
MP: Many of your listeners may remember that breakfast was available at your school. In Vermont, many kids take really long bus rides to school, and while schools may offer a hot breakfast in the cafeteria, there’s often not a lot of time to eat that breakfast because kids are rushing to school and kids are on the bus from a half an hour to an hour even to get to school. One important innovation we have worked on this year is to challenge schools to move breakfast after the school bell. So, when kids get off the bus they’ll get their breakfast maybe in the hallway in a bag or maybe even in their classroom and eat breakfast together as a community with their teacher. As part of that, we work with other farm-to-school programs across Vermont to make sure those breakfasts contain as much local product as possible, because ideally, what we’re going for is to feed kids wherever they are throughout their day, and in doing that we have the opportunity to educate kids about great food, and create “localvores” for life, right? If you’re all going to stay in Vermont and go to one of our great state colleges, we hope you care about our local food system, and let’s start right there in school.
TK: Is that applied to lunch also?
MP: It is applied to lunch. We are a little more successful at lunch because everyone’s always around for lunch; it’s that rush at breakfast that’s a worry. It happens at both breakfast and lunch; there are even some evening meals at some schools or snack programs that involve fresh fruits and vegetables from the local produce, but right now we have a very special focus on breakfast to help kids get more breakfast and it’s just totally logical, right? If the quality of the food is better, then everyone is more likely to eat it, so that’s what working with farm-to-school programs really does. It really improves the quality and gets kids eating.
TK: And you said you also teach kids about the food that they’re eating… Is that during the mealtime or is there a set aside class for food nutrition, like in a health class is that just implemented into the curriculum? How does that work?
MP: Well, there are a couple of opportunities. One thing in the last 25 years that has happened in schools, that we see as pretty problematic, is that as school budgets have been cut, those consumer science and cooking classes that used to be offered as part of the curriculum have been cut from budgets. Now, by helping more kids eat breakfast in the classroom or participate in lunch or hopefully your school participates in Universal Free School meals, where all the kids can eat for free, we want to get education into that process. For example if your class is eating a really great carrot soup that week as part of the lunch program, perhaps you’ll get the opportunity to talk about why carrots are good for you and how it’s important to try them in different ways – if you don’t like them in the soup, maybe you’d like them raw. Or, maybe even bring that farmer in to understand how the carrot is grown and what is looks like raw before it’s prepared. So, we are trying really hard to integrate education whenever kids are eating.
TK: What’s the general feedback from kids and parents about these programs? I know there’s this attitude amongst a lot of children that vegetables are gross – “I don’t want to eat that!” How do they react to the food? Do you hear “why don’t we have chicken fingers?” if it’s, like you’re saying, carrot soup for the day?
MP: I’m with you. When I started this job eight years ago, I remember a food service director welcoming me to my job and saying, “Come eat at my school some time. I serve spinach salad basically three times a week and the kids love it.” I was so skeptical that she was right. I was like, well you may serve it, but I have a hard time believing your elementary school kids are eating spinach salad. So I went to this school, and this food service director had created her own recipe for a low-fat, high-calcium, very tasty ranch dressing for the spinach salad that was blended cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, and herbs. She made this really delicious, very nutritious dressing to go on top of the spinach salad and the kids loved it. That was my very first lesson in kids – if they’re influenced by really delicious food prepared in a way that people care that you like it and you’re not just eating it for your health but you’re eating it because it can be delicious, and the spirit around that food is “we are all going to try it, and you don’t have to eat things you don’t like it but it’s great to try new stuff.” You can create a culture in school where kids will be really excited to eat healthy food.
TK: And I’m assuming the parents have been on board and they support this whole action or…?
MP: Yeah, I mean parents are on board but one thing that has been kind of magical to see is what wonderful change agents kids can be. We’ve seen kids eating really healthy food in their child care center even or at school and it may have been their first exposure to a particular vegetable, say a turnip or spinach is a great example, and they’ll go home and ask their parents to serve that vegetable, and the parent is like, “I don’t know I’ve never cooked a turnip in my life.” So, they’re coming in and talking to the people who serve their kids that food, and everybody’s diet improves. It’s been cool to see the kids making real change at home because they love what they’re eating at school.
TK: How many schools are involved in this program that you help to facilitate? And how many farms? How is the collaboration executed?
MP: Well it’s a really big network. One important historical piece… something that people believe that’s not always true – is that schools have to provide meals and they don’t. There’s no law. There’s no requirement that schools provide meals, but there’s a National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program that provides federal funding to feed kids in school. When we started our work in 1993 less than half of Vermont schools were actually serving meals at school… Organizations like ours go door-to-door and school-to-school to talk schools into providing the program, and once they’re in the program, then we help them with the quality of their food. Right now we have 98% of Vermont schools participating in the meal program… From there, we work with basically all the farm-to-school programs, with anybody who wants to work in food and cares about this issue we work with. For example, we have what are called Region Hunger Councils, and those are councils of people who come together – they may be students, the head of your local bank, or people like me who work on the front line. We have 925 active volunteers that come together… in these different councils, talk about these issues, and help us work to implement them. So, it’s a pretty big network that we access to make school meals as nutritious and available [as possible.]
TK: Do you know of any other states doing similar things with their school systems? Have you talked to any other states and borrowed ideas from each other?
MP: We have, and that’s what’s really cool about our work… We work with End Hunger Connecticut and Hunger Free Colorado. There are different organizations like ours across the country that we do work with and we borrow each other’s ideas all the time. For example, one law that we were actually the first ones to design and pass here in Vermont, was that if your school wasn’t offering a breakfast program… you’d have to take it to your school board for a vote to continue to opt out of the program. Well, as soon as parents realized, “Wait, we can have a breakfast program?” they didn’t want to opt out. So, they really pushed the school to do it, and that’s what helped us get so many more schools into the program. Well, a few years later, the state of Florida was like, “That’s a great idea.”
TK: Florida! That’s so far. How do you think they heard about your efforts?
MP: Well, I get together a couple times a year with other organizational leaders who do this type of work. I’ll be with them in Washington DC in a couple of weeks, after the election, but we share ideas constantly. We really try to stay as networked as possible because we are really lucky in Vermont that we have a really supportive legislature and really supportive governors no matter what political party they were from. That’s not always true in other states. I think Vermont is looked to for really progressive policy that can be passed, but I’ve learned a lot about really detrimental policy that can be passed in states and where we need to protect Vermont from passing things that could really harm the meal programs.
TK: What challenges are you faced with when trying to implement programs such as this and spread this initiative; what advice would you give to other states or other organizations for trying to spread the same awareness and implement similar programs?
MP: Some of the big challenges for schools… School budgets are stretched so far. Sometimes it can be really challenging to make the business of providing school meals work. We do have federal reimbursements that feed kids right in our school, but… for a long time, we used the federal system of meal reimbursements, which is that kids qualify for a free, reduced, or full pay meal. If you qualified for the reduced price meal, it meant that you would have to pay a 30 or 40 cent co-pay for breakfast or lunch, and our food service directors were seeing kids come through the line hungry [without] that co-pay, and they would feed them anyway. It would add up, and it would put schools into a lot of debt and make it really hard for them to continue to feed those kids. So, what Hunger Free Vermont did is in 2008 and 2012 passed two different pieces of legislation to get the state of Vermont to kick in the money for those kids, so that there are only two categories in Vermont: free and full pay. But still it can be really challenging to make the business of school meals work – you need a robust budget. You need to pay your farmer a living wage… So that’s what we continue to work on is often the finances of schools. One program that is really helping fix those finances and get more local food and solve childhood hunger is Universal Free School Meals. It’s a new program from the Obama Administration that allows schools where more than 40% of their kids are on 3 Squares Program or other anti-poverty programs provide free meals to all the kids regardless of their parents’ income…It’s in almost 20% of our schools and the schools are either out of debt or have way less debt and every kid is eating and most times schools can afford a lot more local food in their program.
TK: For working with the farms, you said there are a lot of different factors involving school budgets and the salary of farm workers; do you see that your programs also benefit [the farmers] in addition to the schools and the children who can’t afford lunch or face those sort of problems?
MP: Yeah, I totally feel that way because… if all the sudden your school is offering free school meals for breakfast and lunch, it means you’re going to get money for every meal through the federal meal program and instead of your school being in debt, they’re now going to have every meal paid for and you’re going to be able to spend that money at your local farms. So, we are really tracking the money that comes through the school meal programs to hopefully see it come right out into the Vermont economy because farming is a hard job and what we want to do is keep our farmers in business and have them have a great livelihood…so the more we can get kids eating at school, the more we have the opportunity to benefit those local farms and keep those local products flowing through the state.