Tuesday September 03, 2013 | 07:16 AM

Ron Adams in the new central kitchen for Portland, Maine Public Schools

Hey parents, school lunch is cool again! Across the country and smack dab in the middle of Portland, Maine the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) and food heroes like Ron Adams, Director of Food Services Portland Public Schools, are turning school lunch on its head. 

“Jamie Oliver’s food revolution is what I had in mind when I got here,” said Adams. “It’s what we are doing.”

Prior to arriving in Portland in 2009, Adams was the Director of the Gorham School Nutrition Program from 1998 to 2009 and the Director of the Yarmouth School Nutrition Program from 1996 to 1998.

Recently, Adams gave me a tour of the new central kitchen for Portland Public Schools. The kitchen will service the district’s 10 elementary schools, providing 2500 breakfasts and 2000 lunches daily.

Formerly the Portland Shellfish building, the facility was purchased, renovated, and equipped for $3.2 million. That might seem like a lot, until you compare the figure to $6.5 million, which is what it would have cost to purchase and renovate a building not already set up for food processing. Portland’s school district adopted the “central kitchen” model 40 years ago in order to control quality and budget. The cost of putting in 10 separate full kitchens would total about $3 million, but the district would never be able to afford the staff and equipment according to Adams.

Portland and Deering High Schools already have fully functioning kitchens, although the new central kitchen will provide them with some local foods. “Our big focus of the last three years has been really getting local foods in the elementary menus and as those kids move up the system we are expanding that accessibility to local foods as the kids get older,” said Adams.

Currently, the Portland school district spends 20% of their food dollars on dairy products from the Maine based company Oakhurst Dairy and approximately 12% on local produce and meats. The latter figure translates to around 50,000 pounds of local fruit and vegetables and another 14,000 pounds of fish and meat. Adams would like to see those pound numbers double, and certainly the newly equipped central kitchen will help. More families buying into the school lunch program will too.

Local Lunch Every Thursday
In an effort to promote the use of local ingredients in school lunches and to encourage kids to eat healthy, the district has committed to every Thursday of the 2013-14 school year being their Buy Local Day. Multiple items on every school menu will be sourced from the region and the food service department even posted the following announcement/invitation on their website: 

***If you want to see more fresh local foods in the school meal programs, please show your support by having your students buy lunch every Thursday! You can make arrangements to come have lunch with your student through the school office for $4 per visitor.***

The Decision Tree
The district receives about $2 million in reimbursements from the USDA. According to Adams, that has been a big addition that has come about since he was hired five years ago to do better quality food and local food. Those goals have meant absorbing $500,000 a year in food subsidies from the city in an effort to break even. As anyone who does the grocery shopping for his or her family knows, it’s all about getting the best quality possible for the best price. With Adams that responsibility is magnified by thousands and all in an effort to provide Maine children with a healthy meal. “The decision tree is can we afford to have the closest thing possible, and if it’s not then what’s the next step back until we are back buying from the mass distributors,” said Adams. “That’s the tree. When we do local fish, it’s probably .75 portion when we buy it and remember we’re trying to do the whole meal for about $1.20. (It’s) really hard for me to afford more than .75 more than once a week, if not once a month sometimes. So, that’s the juggle.”

Food Access
School meals are user fee based, with lunch prices (not including milk) ranging from $2.35 for grades K-5 and $2.50 for grades 6-12. In Portland, 54% of the kids receive a free breakfast and lunch every day, and another 250 who qualify for reduced price meals would normally pay $.40 for lunch. Adams and his team absorbed that cost so those kids could eat for free. “It was about $15,000, but we found other ways to pay for that internally,” said Adams. “We see those reduced families on the edge that just missed being free by about $100 and hey, if you’re that close we’re just going to feed everybody for free.”

The New Central Kitchen
With the new central kitchen, Adams and nine full-time staff have been able to consolidate all the scratch cooking with local foods in a space that is compatible with all the food regulations of the past ten years. The old facility was designed to serve frozen and canned food. When food services made the switch to serving fresh, local foods, they had to have refrigeration, which they did not have a sufficient amount of at the last facility. Now they have double the refrigeration space. A new, far more efficient oven than the one from the old kitchen, takes up less than ¼ the space of the old unit with 2/3 the capacity and cooks twice as fast. A USDA Farm to School grant paid for a produce sink and peeler, so the district can incorporate more local foods into menus for less labor. In three minutes, the peeler can peel 50 lbs. of carrots from school gardens or another local source.

Brand new dishwasher and reusable washable trays.

No More Styrofoam
What is Adams most excited about? The dishwasher! Without the space in prior years, food services had to rely on a pot washer just for pans. No longer, thanks to the purchase of the $85,000 dishwasher that can clean 7,000 trays every two days, and Adams said is just like one you would see at Colby College. After 28 years, this year, kids will be using reusable washable trays. Think super groovy TV dinner tray. According to Adams, the number one complaint from parents and students in the last five years has been about the Styrofoam trays. “Lunch will look very different this year,” said Adams. Yes, it will!

Almost like a TV tray, each one will be packed with an entrée e.g. a drumstick and Delicata Squash, sealed, and sent out cold to the individual school kitchens to warm.

To equip the new central kitchen, Adams and staff worked with Jason Bolton, Assistant Extension Professor and Food Safety Specialist of University of Maine, and kitchen designer/food service consultant Tom McArdle.

More Improvements
At Ocean Avenue Elementary School, food services found kids loved choosing their own individual packed containers of fruits, coleslaw, or salad. The lunch line time went from 12-15 minutes to 6-8, allowing kids more time to eat their meals.

Two years ago with a grant from a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention salad bars were installed in all 10 of the district’s elementary schools. According to a nutrition survey team’s findings, 75% of the kids took something every time they went through the line.

Thinking Outside the Box
In addition to sourcing local ingredients from the likes of Snell Family Farm and Maine-ly Poultry, Adams purchased 1,000 lbs of zucchini and summer squash and 500 lbs of garlic scapes from Cultivating Community’s New American Sustainable Program. He has also, in what could prove to be a creative and lucrative move, arranged with Good Shepherd Food Bank (GSFB) for them to give the district donated tomatoes they do not give out at the pantry and would end up composting. Food services takes the tomatoes, makes a spaghetti sauce, and turns around and gives GSFB back the sauce to test market at Preble Street and Florence House. With a Farm to School grant, the district should have bottling equipment by spring and is looking at making a jarred tomato sauce that is made with Maine grown products, that is made in Maine and is affordable to send back out to consumers at the pantries. Adams likens this idea to the Newman’s Own model of driving revenues.

In case need a large batch of marinara sauce or extra tomatoes, Ron was kind enough to share the following with The Root’s readers:

Marinara Sauce Recipe from Portland Public Schools:

2 Tbsp & ¼ tsp Canola Oil
10 ½ ozs Yellow Onion diced ¼ “
3 1/8 ozs Garlic, raw
½ Tbsp Basil leaves, dried
½ Tbsp Oregano leaves, dried
¾ tsp Thyme leaves, dried
1 lb & 2 ¾ ozs Summer squash, zucchini
5 ¼ ozs Carrots, raw
13 ozs Beets, raw and peeled
10 lbs & 2 ozs Tomatoes
2 ¾ tsp Salt
¼ tsp Black Pepper (ground)

Wash hands before beginning
Cook onions in oil till clear
Add garlic and spices
Add zucchini, beets and carrots
When cooked through, puree with immersion blender
Add tomato
Bring to a boil, puree with immersion blender
Reduce to 24 gallons
Adjust to taste
Cool to 70 within 2 hours and from 70 to 41 or lower within an additional 4 hours.

Number of portions: 24
Size of portion: 4 oz

About this Blog

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About the Author

Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at kitchens.sharon@gmail.com or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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