Paul Curtiss: “Steve Marinelli Changing Kids, One Fry at a Time”

In 2011 Steve Marinelli arrived at the Milton Town School District Cafeteria. He had a vision, one that would transform the food system district-wide. Immediately, food in the cafeteria went from french fries and pizza to sweet potato slaw and baked halibut. Steve would have a profound impact not only on the healthy food served to students, but also on the relationships created between students, teachers, the community, the state, and the nation.


“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

“Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.”

Orson Welles

(Goodreads, 2013)

A Short History of Food

Michael Pollan in his In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, wrote, “The shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from the mere animal biology to an act of culture.” (Goodreads, 2013). However, for our children, in the world of fast food and twenty-minute power lunches, the communal culture and nutritional aspect of eating is in jeopardy. In Milton, Vermont, a town with a diverse socioeconomic population, the communal and nutritional experience has returned – in the school cafeteria.

When I arrived in Milton in 2005 as a first-year teacher, the communal experience of dining had dwindle down to a manic race to ingest, in fewer than twenty minutes, what was labeled as food but barely could be classified as nutritious or tasty. That all changed in 2011 when Steve Marinelli arrived at the Milton Town School District Cafeteria. He had a vision, one that would transform the food system district-wide. Immediately, food in the cafeteria went from french fries and pizza to sweet potato slaw and baked halibut. Look at this inviting selection at the Milton Middle School Cafeteria:

Screen shot 2014-05-17 at 8.36.48 AM(Miranelli, 2013)

Steve would have a profound impact not only on the healthy food served to students, but also on the relationships created between students, teachers, the community, the state, and the nation.

Quality From the Beginning

Steve’s first focus was improving the health of the lunches. He knew that a good meal meant physical and mental health for our students. He seemed to know, as Behrman wrote in The Impact of Health and Nutrition on Education (1996), that “[c]hild health and nutrition are strongly associated with educational achievement” and that physical health as a child leads to physical health as an adult (Holland 2012). How does Steve do it? He has a unique philosophy in food leadership that goes beyond the types of food he serves:

Steve’s Philosophy on Food Leadership

Presentation, Presentation


Staff Training

Get Kids Involved

Make it an Experience

(Marinelli, 2013)

Because I think the last two of Steve’s philosophies on food have had the greatest impact in Milton, let’s look at “Get Kids Involved” and “Make it an Experience.”

Student Voice and the Art of Connection

Steve’s true success, besides quality food, can be seen in getting kids involved and making dining an experience in Milton. First, he is an effective leader because he gives students voice through using them in the kitchen and surveying them on the menu selections. Here’s Steve engaging with students at Milton Elementary School:

Screen shot 2014-05-17 at 8.43.21 AM(Lamdin, 2013)

Second, he is effective because he has made dining an experience in the Milton schools. What was a twenty-minute rush now has turned into a time to connect with friends, colleagues, and students. As Steve says himself, “My goal is to make lunchtime a dining experience for the students” (Marinelli, 2013). Students now stay longer at lunch and engage socially. Steve, through food, has created an environment where students can create social identities (Brooker & Woodhead, 2008), and can social learn as they “interact with their world” (Jayce, 2013, January). Steve has created a microcosm of a world in the Milton school cafeteria where students eat lunch and talk about their school day:

Screen shot 2014-05-17 at 8.45.38 AM(Lamdin, 2013)

State and National Recognition

Steve, the students, and his program have been recognized at the state and national level. In Vermont, Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross “told Marinelli his food service model- which makes use of local, fresh produce – is a model for the nation.” (Agency of Education, 2013, March), and in 2013 Governor Shumlin signed the new Vermont State budget into law at the Milton Elementary and Middle School cafeteria as a symbol of its success.

Screen shot 2014-05-17 at 8.47.46 AM (Ledbetter, 2013, May)

On the national level, due to a blog written by Steve and seen by the White House, in 2013 a group of students was invited, not once but twice, to visit Michelle Obama at the White House, to plant and harvest the White House Garden, and to be recognized for the quality food program that has been created. Here in this video you can see the results of Steve’s success and his direct impact on students:

(WPTZ, 2013, April 4)

This trip helped build and reinforce positive identities in our school community as students, teachers, and community members watched online as Steve and the students met Michelle Obama.

Screen shot 2014-05-17 at 8.51.18 AM (Lamdin, 2013)

Even though only five students and a handful of staff were able to fly to Washington, all students took pride in their school and community, a key component to their developing a need to belong and their need to be unique (Brooker & Woodhead, 2008). This can easily be traced back to Steve’s work.


Steve through his hard work and healthy food choices has impacted all students in Milton and provided them with the opportunity to learn more about food and nutrition. He has created an environment where students have another place where they can engage in social development. He has taken this influence to the state and national level, not only impacting the students and staff who traveled with him to the White House but also all the students who watched their peers on television, asked questions about the food in the cafeteria, or simply grabbed a fruit salad rather than fried chicken. Steve is a role model for the food service community, the student and faculty community in Milton, and the greater Milton community.

Screen shot 2014-05-17 at 8.55.25 AM

(Vermont FEED (Food Education Every Day) 2013)


Agency of Education. (2013, March 29). Retrieved from

Behrman, J.R. (1996) The impact of health and nutrition on education. The World Bank Research Observer, 11 (1). Retrieved from

Brooker, L. & Woodhead, M. (eds.). (1990). Developing positive identities:Diversity and young children. The Open University: UK. Retreived from

Goodreads. (2013). Retrieved from and

Holland, M. (2012). Nutrition impacts cognition and learning. Nutrition Action, 15 (5.) Retrieved from

Jayce. (2013, January 14). Constructivism in a nutshell [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Lamdin, C. (2013, April 11). National nutrients. Milton Independent. Retrieved from

Ledbetter, S. (2013, May 28). Shumlin signs new state budget into law. WPTZ. Retrieved from

Marinelli, S. (2013, March). Let’s move [Blog articles]. Retrieved from

WPTZ NewsChannel 5 . (2013, April 4). Milton students plant with First Lady [Video file]. Retrieved from

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APA cite this article in text as: (Curtiss, 2014)

APA cite this article in References as: Curtis, P. (2014). Steve Marinelli changing kids, one fry at a time. Vermont Psychology. Retrieved from

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Paul Curtiss is a theatre educator for the Milton Town School District in Vermont.  He has been working with grades six through twelve since 2005. His students have produced award winning shows, including four state Vermont Drama One Act Festival championships over the past five years. He is always amazed at the depth of the work adolescents can find while working in the art of theatre. In his free time he likes to spend time with his son, ride his bike, and cook.