Updated at 6:38 p.m.
Champlain Islands Unified Union School District is considering a new use for part of the Isle La Motte Elementary School, which has not held classes in more than a year.
A group of local residents has proposed turning the school’s kitchen into what’s known as a food venture center, where small food producers could use the existing equipment to make value-added products.
For instance, a farmer who grows basil could rent out the kitchen to make batches of pesto sauce, which could then be sold at a farmers market.
Guy Maguire, the programs director at South Hero Land Trust, said selling value-added food products is one way farmers can reach new customers and increase their profits. But there’s often a high barrier to entry, he said, since setting up and maintaining a commercial kitchen can be expensive.
“This is a way of spreading that cost around a little bit,” Maguire said.
Several members of the Champlain Islands Unified Union School District board said they supported the food venture center idea at a Sept. 7 meeting, though emphasized that the district would not be able to run the facility itself.
“If it's managed correctly,” board member Nathan Robinson said, “it could really be a positive thing for the Islands community.”
Locals supporting the project plan to visit Isle La Motte Elementary School later this month to see how the kitchen is laid out.
The school, which had served students in kindergarten through sixth grade, was closed ahead of the 2020-21 academic year. Superintendent Michael Clark said just three students were set to be enrolled there before it shut down.
Instead, Isle La Motte students may attend elementary school in either North Hero or the town of Grand Isle. All three campuses were merged into a unified school district ahead of the 2019-20 academic year.
The district currently uses the Isle La Motte school as a base for field trips, Clark said, such as to the island’s nature preserves. The town government also leases part of the building.
Sylvia Jensen, a former town selectboard member, is leading the project. She said the idea stemmed from a conversation with local farmer Patrick Helman.
The school’s kitchen is accessible from a side entrance, Jensen noted, which means the food operations likely wouldn't disturb people in the rest of the building.
Maguire, of South Hero Land Trust, said a recent survey found that more than 20 farms in Grand Isle and Franklin counties — which also make value-added food products — could be interested in using some kind of community space.
“Farms are an important part of the culture and the landscape here in the Islands,” he said. “We try to be as responsive and supportive as we can to farmers who have ideas about helping keep their businesses going.”
Jensen said an example of an existing shared-use kitchen is the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick. The facility has three commercial kitchens, according to its website, and has supported “hundreds of small and medium-scale businesses.”
The Hardwick center charges users $28 an hour on days they are preparing their products, and $35 an hour on days they are cooking or packaging them.
Jensen said if plans for the Isle La Motte kitchen work out, it could become a model for other communities with school buildings that are no longer in use.
“We have just passed the starting line,” she said. “But we're very encouraged by the board’s willingness to work with us.”
Corrections: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed information from the Champlain Islands Unified Union School District and incorrectly attributed a quote from Nathan Robinson.
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