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Valley Bounty: Feeding kids fuels a healthy community – GazetteNET

Doreen Batchelor, cook and manager of Stefanik School. Batchelor is Chicopee School Lunch’s most senior employee of 38 years. CONTRIBUTED
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Donna Miner, cook and manager at Chicopee High School, with the fish sticks from Red’s Best in Boston.  CONTRIBUTED
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Melanie Wilk, Nannette Baker and Jill Sweeney promoting the Chicopee Fresh program at the Chicopee Center Fresh Market. CONTRIBUTED
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The Chicopee Fresh food truck distributes summer meals at Ray Ash Park. CONTRIBUTED
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Students from Bowie Elementary School enjoy arts and crafts activities at summer meal sites. CONTRIBUTED
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Families enjoy a summer meal with friends on a picnic blanket at Garrity Grove Park  CONTRIBUTED
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Many Chicopee families rely on school food to ensure their kids get enough to eat, and Chicopee Fresh has a mission to combat food insecurity while supporting the local economy. The program is making a difference, with grab-and-go breakfasts and/or breakfast in the classroom in all their schools, nutritious lunches and even in-classroom catering for special occasions.
Chicopee Fresh is the farm-to-school program of the Chicopee Public Schools. Almost eight years ago, the district got a grant from the Kendall Foundation to launch Chicopee Fresh, enabling Chicopee school cafeterias to connect with local farmers and food producers, set up systems that could be copied by other school districts, and develop school gardens. The dynamic initiative set strong roots to overhaul the school lunch program and introduce locally sourced ingredients.
Today, Director of Food Service Melanie Wilk and her team of 105 employees serve 5,500 lunches per day across 15 schools. Annually, Chicopee Fresh serves close to 900,000 meals, with a food budget around $3 million. Approximately 15% of that, or $450,000, is spent on locally sourced products.
Wilk attributes the strides Chicopee Fresh has made toward food security in the community to her employees. “We have a hardworking, flexible, open-minded team. Our longest-standing employee has been with us 38 years. Our staff is passionate about feeding kids and trying new programs to introduce healthy foods to students,” says Wilk.
Wilk notes, “We hope that exposing different foods from seed to tray at school and involving kids in the process will inspire students to take home what they’ve learned to their families. We hope to reach the whole family by sending home recipes, offering taste tests at school for the kids, and making a variety of dishes with local ingredients.”
Most of the feedback the Chicopee Fresh team receives is positive. “For the most part, the kids enjoy the food we’re serving,” says Wilk. “It’s about helping kids form a positive relationship with food, learning how food impacts the local economy, and recognizing how healthy food affects their bodies. We try to influence from an early age,” she adds. Some data suggests it takes eight to twelve tries of exposing a new food before a child likes — or even tries — that new food. “We just keep trying,” says Wilk, “and the kids really like things that adults might not expect a child to really like.”
The baking program sources local ingredients, varying fresh, homemade offerings weekly. A recent grant by the New England Dairy Council funds a smoothie program in both high schools as another way to incorporate fresh, local ingredients in the breakfast menu.
Chicopee is also one of the only local school districts with a full time Farm to School Program Coordinator, Brianna Jackson. In this role, Jackson manages the nine school gardens and farm-to-school activities, including planting and harvesting and developing new recipes to align with the Harvest of the Month program from the state.
When restrictions imposed by COVID-19 meant that parents could not bring food from home for classroom celebrations, the team launched classroom catering to offer fun, healthy treats for birthdays and celebrations at a low cost to parents. Because the catering is run through Chicopee Fresh, food delivered to classrooms is checked to accommodate student allergies.
When the pandemic closed schools, families who rely on school lunches each day to feed their children were strongly impacted. Between transportation and childcare during the lockdown, it was challenging for some parents to pick up meals from programs like Chicopee Fresh. “We saw an opportunity for us to bring food to families, instead of them coming to us,” Wilk says.
Before the pandemic, Chicopee Fresh staff had dreamed of ways to bring food to the families with a food truck. Wilk notes, “On a wing and a prayer, we applied for the Food Security Infrastructure Grant, and to our surprise we got it. We applied and received $153,000 to fund a food truck.”
With the truck last summer, Chicopee Fresh handed out meals at libraries, four parks and community centers, and increased the amount of summer meals they handed out by thousands. Wilk notes, “We were looking for parts of Chicopee we were missing.” Now the truck is used for after-school meal pickup at the Chicopee Library during the school year.
“I grew up in Chicopee and I feel passionate about this community,” says Wilk. “I’m also a parent, and I always saw myself combining nutrition and kids somehow, and I feel like this role is the perfect combination of these passions. I love to see our hard work on the tray, and I love sharing our program with others.”
Stay up to date with Chicopee Fresh by signing up for their newsletter on their website and following their social media: https://www.chicopeefresh.com/
Lisa Goodrich is communications coordinator for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, (CISA). Shop locally this holiday season and visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally, where you’ll find everything you need to decorate, cook, and gift your way through the holidays.
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