WINDHAM – School lunch often gets a bad rap, but at Windham Primary School on Thursday, more students than usual queued up in the cafeteria to buy the day’s meal.

The school served 650 hot lunches, 150 more than on an average day.

The lunch rush was the result of a guest chef program that brought in Erin Dow, a Maine chef who is part of first lady Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools program.

Dow is also the expert chef with the Maine-based Guiding Stars program and owns a catering company in Winthrop called Eatswell Farm.

“I’m always trying to develop recipes kids will eat,” said Dow, who is the mother of three. “The best thing we can do is tweak something they like or create a new dish with a flavor profile they know.”

Thursday’s menu was part of the Windham-Raymond school district’s effort to serve more minimally processed and local foods. It featured made-from-scratch Parmesan-crusted chicken tenders, carrot fries with a Greek yogurt dipping sauce, BLT pasta salad made with whole-grain pasta and a Maine-grown apple.

Samantha Bell, 5, who normally brings her lunch to school, bought lunch on Thursday.

“I love it,” she said. “I like the chicken.”

Dow and the district’s nutrition staff had prepared and served the same meal at three other schools in the district.

Next month, Dow will visit Windham Middle School to prepare a healthful Super Bowl menu. “We’re thinking about doing a vegetarian meal so the kids can learn that vegetarian food tastes good,” she said.

Kids will try almost anything at least once, Dow said, and most picky eating habits are learned at home.

“People think kids are picky eaters, but they’re not,” she said.

It’s generally cheaper for schools to buy whole foods than processed items like chicken nuggets and french fries. The cost of the ingredients in Thursday’s lunch, including milk, was about $1 per meal. But to prepare it, school Nutrition Director Jeanne Reilly had to bring in extra workers.

“It is more expensive in that it’s requiring more labor,” Reilly said. “To cook from scratch takes more time, and labor is one of our biggest costs.”

In August, kitchen workers from the Windham-Raymond school district and the neighboring Lake Region school district participated in a training program that taught culinary basics, such as knife skills, along with more specialized techniques, such as how to operate food-service equipment.

“We funded the training as well as new equipment so they can process more fresh foods,” said Adam Burk, who is a coordinator with Communities Promoting Health, a coalition that serves western Cumberland County.

Funding for the training and equipment came from a grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The equipment that Windham Primary School received as part of the grant included immersion blenders, salad spinners, an industrial food processor and a device to make quick work of cutting potato wedges.

The grant also funded the installation of 14 raised garden beds outside the cafeteria. Next spring, an orchard and a berry patch will be added to the garden.

Dow’s visits to the schools are funded by a grant through the U.S. Department of Education.

“We’ve seen huge improvements in the quality of the food we’re serving,” said Stephanie Joyce, the school health coordinator.

A handful of parents came for lunch on Thursday. One of them was Erica Lane.

“I think it’s an awesome lunch,” Lane said. “It’s a great idea.”

Her daughter Emily Lane, 7, agreed, saying, “It’s really good.”

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

akamila@pressherald.com

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila