St. Anne's-Belfield Students Planting Onions at Bellair Farm

Small groups of students are spending the week mulching fields and planting rows of vegetables at Bellair Farm, a community-supported agriculture operation south of Charlottesville.

But these hours laboring in the sun aren’t punishment; rather, the students at St. Anne’s-Belfield School are participating in a week-long, all-school community service project.

“[A school-wide project] is something we’ve done for the past few years,” said Phil Stinnie , dean of student life and director of community service. “We want the whole school to give back and to build community, and we wanted to find something that would benefit the local community.”

The “local” idea is not new to the students at St. Anne’s, and it’s at its strongest in the kitchen, where executive chef Trey Holt emphasizes healthful foods grown locally.

“The closer you are to the food, the better,” Holt said. “If you know the farm, if you can highlight the farm on your menu, then you can support them.”  

The private school is in the process of purchasing shares in the Bellair Farm CSA, which will support the farm and allow the school to serve local vegetables in their dining halls.

Holt’s passion for healthier, local-sourced food is not limited to nutrition.

“Getting away from processed foods is huge, but I also want to support the local economy,” Holt said. “If I can get tomatoes in my region, even if it’s not in that less-than-75-mile range, why would I get them from a big agricultural producer in California?”

To buy produce, Holt uses the Local Food Hub, which works with about 80 small farms around Charlottesville to aggregate and distribute food to market.

“Trey has been an absolute path-breaker to the extent to which he’s using local food in his menu and teaches kids about good food and nutrition,” said Kristen Suokko, executive director of the Local Food Hub . “Trey will often come here himself and pick out the produce by hand.”

But the bounty of healthy local produce hasn’t always existed at the private school.  

“There was a learning process when I got to St. Anne’s-Belfield because there was a lot of processed food,” Holt said. “A food service company had been here and was serving hamburgers and hot dogs and bags of frozen vegetables, so it was tough to change the system.”

“It’s difficult, particularly with the kids who knew the program prior, because they want fried food, they don’t want anything green,” Holt added. “We’re focusing a lot on the little kids now. When we’re behind the line, I’ll try to coax the kids who don’t want green beans to try two or three, and I’ll put two on their plate.”  

The school now has local tomatoes, zucchini, yellow squash and salad greens, and in the summer and fall they will have kale, potatoes, sweet potatoes and apples.  

During the week of community service all 800 student lunches will be locally sourced, including apples, tomatoes and bread.

Despite his efforts and expertise, Holt gives credit to St. Anne’s for supporting this change in dining philosophy.

“I couldn’t have been here if they wanted school food as school food was,” Holt said. “I’ve been lucky enough to always work within a culture that values a quality product.”

As for the field work, the students have found the service project both challenging and educational.

Farm manager Jamie Barrett is grateful for the extra help.

“To have this many hands in spring is great,” Barrett said. “We can get a lot of plants in the ground, which will allow us to produce and donate more food, but will also give us more time to do community outreach.”

On Monday morning alone, a group of sophomores planted four rows of onions in 2 ½ hours, a job that would normally take a small crew of workers 14 hours.

“I can’t think of anything more important than seeing where the food comes from and having the literal ‘hands-on’ experience,” Suokko said. “The kids’ ability to connect the dots from where food comes from is invaluable.”

“With this program … when the CSA basket arrives,” Holt said, “I’ll be able to say, ‘you might have planted this, try it.’”