January 15

Natural Foodie: Getting more Maine-grown food in city schools and homes

Portland initiatives aim to increase community gardening and make school lunches more locally based.

By Avery Yale Kamila

Could sheep and a shepherd replace lawn mowers in Deering Oaks? Could an urban farm sprout on the peninsula? Could the waiting list for a community garden plot be eliminated? Could hot lunch become cool?

click image to enlarge

Ronald Adams, director of food services for Portland Public Schools, works in the district’s new central kitchen, which allows the schools to process and store more food from Maine farms.

Press Herald file

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A Bayside garden is one of nine community gardens in Portland. The city has a waiting list of would-be gardeners.

Avery Yale Kamila photo

Portland aims to find out.

A task force convened by Mayor Michael Brennan in 2012 is moving forward with a number of initiatives aimed at giving the city’s residents more opportunities to eat local and nutritious food. While the urban farm and flock of sheep are only in the discussion phase, work is underway to make school lunch more popular by cooking with local foods and to increase the number of community garden plots.

“We have an initiative that 50 percent of the food in Portland schools will be grown locally in the next two years,” Brennan said.

Currently the Portland school department is a statewide leader in this area, spending 30 percent of its food budget (which was $1.13 million in 2013) on local food. Milk accounts for almost 20 percent of the local food purchases, and the rest is spent on Maine vegetables, fruits, meats and tofu.

Each Thursday in Portland is Buy Local Day and on that day the menus at all the schools emphasize food sourced from within 275 miles of the city. Entrees include Maine grind hamburgers, baked chicken drumsticks, baked redfish or haddock, pasta with Maine marinara sauce and teriyaki tofu. The self-serve fruit and veggie bars in every cafeteria feature a number of Maine-grown items each day, such as kohlrabi, rutabaga, turnip, beets, carrots, asparagus, apples or fiddleheads.

The schools serve at least one vegetarian entree each day, with most of the dishes centered on cheese. However, Ronald Adams, who heads the Portland schools’ food service department, said his team is working to add more purely plant-based dishes, such as Mexicali beans, hummus and four-bean chili.

In order to reach the 50 percent local goal without seeking additional money from taxpayers, Portland officials need to get more students to buy hot lunch. Currently about 51 percent of students buy hot lunch each day. Adams said if he can get that number to 60 percent he will be able to afford to increase the local food purchases to 50 percent without raising costs to the district.

To that end, the task force has applied for a grant to help the schools figure out how to entice more students to buy lunch.

“We will be conducting focus groups with students, staff and families to gain insight into what we are doing right and what needs to be improved,” Adams said.

Adams is realistic and knows that buying hot lunch isn’t the coolest move a student can make. But he also knows that what’s considered cool is malleable.

“It is tremendously hard to eliminate the stigma around school meals without community support and encouragement for students to eat lunch with us,” Adams said. “Local foods help eliminate the stigma surrounding school meals by demonstrating that school lunch is quality food for a low price that students and the community can enjoy and support.”

Brennan believes it’s possible to convince more students to buy lunch.

“I think there’s a way to really provide a social challenge to students and families,” Brennan said. “They can support the local schools and the local economy by supporting their classmates to eat more healthy food.”

(Continued on page 2)

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