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Back to School - The Putney School

September 28, 2016

One of Vermont’s most famous residents inspired the philosophy for the Putney School. Founder Carmelita Hinton followed the teachings of John Dewey to found the progressive high school in 1935 under the belief that young people should learn in and from their natural surroundings – that this is as important as traditional  ‘classroom’ education. The campus was opened on a working dairy farm in Putney, Vermont and for over 80 years, the students have been responsible for managing and working the farm. The campus now includes the dairy farm, 3+ acres of organic gardens, chickens, beef cows, turkeys and a sugar bush. 

Executive Chef Marty Brennan-Sawyer has helmed the kitchen for 30 years. He oversees a staff of 90 – 6 paid and 84 enrolled. “The capacity of young people is so much greater than we give them credit for,” Chef Marty shared about his young crew. “The work they do at the school gives them the tools to be effective and instills a sense of responsibility for the land and each other – to be accountable, take directions, and work together. We just want to produce good citizens.” 

Chef Marty doesn’t teach farm-to-table because at The Putney School it’s all one and the same. The students plant, care for, process and serve the food they grow. The student’s work inspires a strong sense of pride and connection. Chef Marty shared an experience after raising turkeys with his students, “I put a turkey stew on the menu, and a student came up to me and asked if it was our turkeys? If it’s our turkeys, the student said, then I’ll eat it.” 

Marty, with the help of his paid and student staff, puts on three meals a day and a ‘milk lunch’ (traditional mid-morning snack for when the farmers come in from their chores). Everyone eats together at the same time, and the students are responsible for prep, serving, cleanup and dish washing. When we talked to Chef Marty, he was planning a lunch of falafel featuring relish, peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden. Milk lunch that day was freshly made buttermilk biscuits. Each morning the students enjoy a hot cereal bar with various toppings including Putney School’s own maple syrup. “We are still running a food service budget,” Chef Marty explained, “and something I wouldn’t regularly buy is maple syrup – that would be an occasional luxury, but because the students tap the trees and boil the syrup themselves, we have maple syrup every day. The value of that syrup is priceless.”

Students at Putney have a vested interest in how the school lives up to its mission. The student-driven ‘Sustainability Squad’ has taken on initiatives like recycling, social and environmental investments and are now working on tracking their own consumption. The students are working to track and quantify the volume, ratio and value of what they produce from hay, maple sugar, wood and wool to produce from the garden and the meat they send to slaughter. The results will become part of an info-graphic to help the school make important decisions about what they grow and produce for years to come. We’re excited to follow the Sustainability Squad and Putney School on this endeavor and we will update readers on their progress! 

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