A Circus with Some Seriously Good Eats

By Willow Yonika, RN, MPH’12 in the Department of Health Policy and Management

Smirkus performer Maia poses with her dinner after a long day training.

I knew I had overcome a major barrier to my work last summer when Katie, the head cook for the circus came up to me one day on the job and out of the blue said she was so appreciative of the food she and her staff were working with this year. She said it was like giving an artist proper tools- it excites them, and makes them want to create better art.

For my practicum last summer, I worked for a traveling circus sourcing local, healthy food to the performers and staff of the troupe. Circus Smirkus is a youth circus based out of Greensboro, Vermont.

The circus tours through six different states in the Northeast, and in a new initiative to go “green” I was hired to create a local food networking system to ease the process of accessing healthy food for this company. This was a challenge not only because we moved locations every few days, but there were about 75 people to feed, three meals a day, and they were a hungry lot! The goal was to be able to support local economies and agriculture, while also providing the performers and crew with healthy options.

By a few weeks in, we had been eating like kings at the circus; the food incredibly fresh and tasty, and the dishes never lacking in creativity.This all would have been impossible if the head cook wasn’t on board though, so to have Katie’s confirmation halfway through the project made me breathe a sigh of relief!

For three months, Head Cook Katie Schroeder and colleague Amity Stoddard cooked three meals a day for roughly 70 people in this tiny mobile kitchen.

A goal of 30% local food was set at the beginning of the project in early June- I can happily report that by the end we were at about 40%. Some states were easy to source from; others were a challenge. Some have great networks already set up, like farm-to-school systems, while others have nothing and I had to source from individual farmers. Some people I worked with made it unbelievably easy, while others were tricky to communicate with. It was a challenging summer!

Overall the project went very well. The performers and staff loved it, because they were eating well; the cooks loved it, since they had great ingredients to work with (and per Katie we were within budget as well- we didn’t spend any more than the previous year); the presenters loved it, because it gave another angle for PR; the farmers and local food systems loved it because it was an increase in business and essentially free advertising; and local food enthusiasts loved it because it was supporting the cause!

I’m looking forward to being able to use these new skills in the non-circus world soon. I hope to be able to apply what I’ve learned to other companies that serve food to their employees, and make it easier for them to source great ingredients for a healthier population.

Talk about good food cred: Check out FarmPlate’s recent article about Circus Smirkus moving to local foods.

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