Food Dissatisfaction

Elisa Clerici, Student Reporter

A tangible tension has been spreading throughout Harwood folks this year, which has brought a very hot topic to the surface.  Should our school keep serving nutritious food for free to everyone, or return to offer different options with the risk of leaving some students hungry?


The struggle of having daily access to nutritious food for some kids has become reality with the arrival of COVID-19. The economic downturn of the pandemic had a significant impact on the food system and laid bare its fragility. It has undone the economic, health and food security of millions, pushing some into extreme poverty, according to The World Bank. While money in people’s pockets drastically decreased, food prices exponentially increased. As mentioned in “Extreme Poverty in the Time of Covid-19,” when those days arrived, the worst nightmare of many families suddenly materialized. They couldn’t afford and provide healthy food for their children anymore. And that was the moment when Harwood charted a new course.


With the aim of protecting children’s right to good quality food, our state made the choice to provide free lunches and breakfasts everyday. Ever since, Harwood tries to buy and serve only high quality ingredients to make sure that, at least at school, all kids are properly nourished… and for free!


Chef Paul, Chef Gary have been working in our school for 15 years. And before that, both of them went to the Culinary Institute of America, one of the top culinary schools in the country. With knowledge and commitment, they started a true revolution: “When we started working at Harwood, most of the food came out of a box,”said Chef Paul. “It wasn’t from scratch. There were not a lot of fresh vegetables and fruits. We were hired to try to use as much local food as we could, to cook from scratch as much as possible. And over the years, that’s really what we’ve tried to do the whole time.”

Still, dissatisfaction with the programme is on the rise among students who have never stopped thinking about how our school used to be, and what it used to offer before Covid hit. Nostalgia for the good old times has led the Highlanders to want the pre-pandemic Harwood back, and right now they are eager to restart a normal life.


“We used to have a great variety of food options. In the morning I used to have a fresh bagel with cream cheese or a smoothie while hanging out with some friends.  Then at lunch time I used to eat delicious salads or sandwiches depending on how hungry I was. But now everything is different,” said senior Josie Rand. “But through it all, I’m aware of the huge effort of the kitchen that is feeding hundreds of students for free at breakfast and lunch with everything available and they are absolutely doing an amazing job.”


Seniors, who have witnessed these changes, think a balance between the past and the present is simple: give the students the choice to get lunch from the salad bar or the sandwich station, while still providing hot lunches.


“We are aware that students would love to have the ala carte back and we would like to have it, but it’s complicated,” confesses Chef Gary. “In the past we used to have a nice salad bar, a line for slices of pizza, and a hot sandwich station where you could buy a hot meatball or a hot ham and cheese toast … there was more variety then. I’m sure it gets boring for some kids to get the same food, and it does for us too. But we’ve tried to make a balance so that we can offer food to all the kids while respecting the nutrition guidelines.”


Little things like waiting in one line to get lunch have turned into a chaotic race to get food.

“We know that at lunch kids are really hungry,” said chef Paul, “and we have in mind that we have to try to give everybody food as quickly as possible, so that they have time to eat and socialize. We don’t have time, we have no time to talk to anybody” he said.


The kitchen staff knows that this issue leads to another bigger problem, the lack of communication. “We could slow down and ask the students for their feedback on the food, but we feel like it’s the kids’ time.” Chef Paul misses having interaction with the students and he needs constructive criticism. Before the Pandemic, “students really liked the food. And that was because of their feedback. I would like kids to tell me, for example, if the food was too spicy or if I should add more cheese etc., and not just that lunch was bad or it wasn’t enough.”


Lack of communication is not Chef Paul’s only challenge. “Staffing is a very big issue right now. We’ve had a hard time finding people to work and we don’t have lots of substitute cooks or staff,” says Chef Paul. “Also, food, in general, is a lot more expensive now. To provide free meals for all students for breakfast and lunch, my estimate is that we have between 40 and $50 million. That’s a lot of money for a small state, but it’ll feed a lot of kids. There’s a lot of students that have food scarcity in their homes, and they are hungry.”


Despite all these challenges, the kitchen is very happy that breakfast and lunch will continue to be free for all students, statewide and nationwide. The House committee, in fact, has recently  approved a bill to fund free school meals.


Erika Dolan, Harwood Unified Union School District Food & Nutrition Co-Director, has always hoped that Vermont would keep offering free meals to everybody. Erika strongly believes that this should become the norm everywhere because of fairness and equality among all the students. “It’s going to be hard to have ala carte and feel like we’re being fair with everybody. Let’s say that some students don’t have the money to get those ala carte items, like kids who qualify for free meals based on the government subsidy. In this case they would not be denied a meal, but a snack or an ala carte, and that’s one of the reasons why we chose to stop having them.”


Erika’s dream is to get rid of every social label, at least at school, and as she underlines, “schools are offering meals as part of the education, because kids need nutritious food to achieve their goals in and outside of school.”


The kitchen staff believes in this ideology as well, and they are working hard towards it by doing their passion and work everyday only for us.

“We really try to offer things that the students like. We’re here for the students. That’s the only reason we’re here.” revealed Chef Paul.