As part of their 2012-13 school curriculum, Vinalhaven’s middle school students spent the first quarter of the academic year planning and organizing Food Week, a celebration of local, affordable and sustainable food. Food Week is the first experiential education project for Vinalhaven middle schoolers in conjunction with the ARC’s Public Education Program. Highlights of Food Week included a Food Week Community Meal and the Windfall Festival.

This fall the ARC hired Amy Palmer as their Education Director with a grant from the Davis Family Foundation and an anonymous donor. Palmer will spend the school year working with teachers to guide the middle school students in field studies and experiential education. “In middle school we’re trying to get the school working on real projects and doing things for the community,” said Palmer. “That hits service learning standards and social studies curriculum. When you do real things and have kids take it on I feel like they do a good job and they’re really engaged.” This is the first year the ARC has collaborated with Vinalhaven School on real-life learning projects. According to Gabe McPhail, General Manager of the ARC, they will focus on projects about food and nutrition, local economy, entrepreneurship and sustainability. “We are trying to engage students in things they feel passionate about and show them what it takes to make something happen from start to finish,” she said.

National Food Day, sponsored by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, was October 24. Vinalhaven’s sixth graders took on the project of planning and organizing a Food Day Community Meal for that evening. The meal was free, open to the public, and featured dishes made with locally sourced ingredients. In preparation for Food Day, Palmer led the sixth graders in preparing a local food meal once a week for the school lunch program. The seventh and eighth graders will have this opportunity as the school year progresses. According to McPhail, the school café staff does all the nutritional planning for the lunch menu. Then the ARC staff chooses one meal per week that they feel they can source locally. Almost all the ingredients (with the exception of spices) come from Maine, if not from Vinalhaven. “I’m hoping they’ll understand why it’s hard to get local food in school,” said Palmer. The school café staff often has to buy prepared food, such as pre-cut potatoes, from out of state because they could never get it all done in time to make the school lunch. However, with the help of middle school students for the prep work, it is possible to use local ingredients. “We’re hoping to get more local food in the school by using the kids to help prep,” said Palmer. “I really want them to understand the advantages of eating local food and how to make it happen.”

Sixth graders also spent significant class time learning about locally grown foods and sustainability. Under the guidance of Middle School Science teacher Emily Cohn, the students read an excerpt of The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and also visited the two island farms that supply the ARC with locally grown produce, Sparkplug Farm and Hall Farm.

McPhail says the Food Day Community Meal was a success. “We counted over 150 in attendance,” she said. “When we were planning the evening we projected there would likely be 75 people for the meal. We were very pleased that so many people joined us. Also, the kids did a super job. They were psyched to be playing such big roles in orchestrating the evening—serving drinks, filling out source cards [for the food], directing traffic, sharing fun Vinlhaven food facts. We were really proud of them for being so responsible and for showing such enthusiasm.”

“There were actually a lot more people than I thought there would be,” said sixth grader Lily Warren. “I was amazed at how many people there were. We had a hard time at the drink station because we ran out of apple cider.”

After the community meal there was a screening of the film Betting the Farm, a documentary about the story of MOO Milk, followed by a discussion with one of the directors.     

For their contribution to Food Week, Vinalhaven’s seventh and eighth graders spent the quarter resurrecting a short-lived, yet beloved island tradition, the Windfall Festival. The students did all of the planning and organizing of the festival under the guidance of middle school English teacher Gloria Delsandro and math teacher Stormy Dyer, along with several community volunteers. According to Delsandro, the Maine State Learning Results include projects such as preparing community events. “Student work focused on communication, cooperation, organization and goal setting,” she said. “Many students pushed themselves to work outside of their comfort zone as they contacted community members to volunteer for the festival or they facilitated activities on festival day.” The students were organized into committees, and the Student Leadership Council helped guide them as they learned how to make decisions in a democratic fashion. Some of the committees students served on include the children’s activities committee, animal demonstrations, advertising, contests and food. “It was really cool to see the kids take it on and make it their own,” said Palmer. “Seeing them take leadership roles was pretty inspiring.” Seventh grader Ashlyn Littlefield worked on the children’s activities committee. “It was really fun,” she said. “We made posters, figured out what we needed to get and who was going to volunteer.”

After the Windfall Festival the seventh and eighth graders completed a reflection as part of their assessment for this project. “Students were asked a series of questions that included thinking about their participation, cooperation, effort, goal setting and follow through,” said Delsandro. “Their writing was very specific. It was clear that service learning projects appeal to our middle school students. It was a very positive, tangible learning experience for the students.”

According to Delsandro, “‘Word on the street” feedback regarding the Windfall Festival was positive. The students had a wonderful time and really noticed the small children enjoying the activities and crafts offered. I believe it was a wonderful beginning to a revival of a popular community event. We have student-generated ideas for improvements for next year!”

With their first big experiential education project under their belts, Palmer hopes to give the middle schoolers a little more choice in the projects they undertake in the coming months. “Perhaps we’ll try two or three small projects,” she said. “We want them to feel passionate about what they’re doing and what they’re learning,” said McPhail.

Kris Osgood is a freelance contributor living on Vinalhaven.