August 25, 2013

Chef's touch transforms school lunches in Maine

Pursuing healthful foods that kids will eat, local districts are taking the obesity battle to the next level.

By Meredith Goad
Staff Writer

Gone are the days of American chop suey from a can and unidentifiable slabs of meat covered in gloppy gravy.

click image to enlarge

Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro, a culinary school graduate and chef, has been hired by the Windham-Raymond school district. She says one of her goals will be to start cooking classes or an after-school cooking club for students.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

School lunch is going back to its roots, sourcing fresh ingredients from Maine farms and cooking mom-worthy hot meals from scratch in an effort to combat childhood obesity by providing healthier, less processed food.

This year, the Windham-Raymond school district is going a step beyond buying grass-fed beef from a farmer up north or apples from the orchard down the road: It's added a full-time chef to its school nutrition department.

Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro, a culinary school graduate who spent the last eight years working as a personal chef and teaching cooking classes in Boston, will train the cooking staff at six schools, teach after-school cooking classes, shape the school lunch menu to the students' tastes, and generally find ways to get children more invested in the food they put in their bodies.

"She's going to be working with our staff to kind of bring our food up to the next level and train my staff more in cooking from scratch," said Jeanne Reilly, director of school nutrition at RSU 14. "(She'll be) reworking our recipes to be moving towards the new (federal nutrition) guidelines, while not losing any flavor."


Southern Maine schools have been focusing on meeting the new federal school lunch guidelines, which went into effect in the 2012-13 school year, for a few years now. This year, they are mostly building on those efforts to feed kids more whole grains and vegetables, cut back on sodium, and bring in more local foods.

While not all of them are hiring full-time chefs, some of them bring in chef consultants and restaurant chefs regularly to train staff and work with students.

There is an especially big emphasis on purchasing as many local foods as possible. This fall, Portland schools, a leader in this area already -- in 2013, they served more than 50,000 pounds of fresh produce -- will launch a "Buy Local Day."

Every Thursday, the school lunch menu will feature Maine ingredients such as redfish bought direct from the community-supported fishery Salt and Sea, breads from Amato's Bakery, beef from Maine Grind in Guilford, and fruits and vegetables from Spear Farm in Waldoboro and distributors Crown of Maine in Presque Isle and Farm Fresh Connection in Freeport.

The Portland district is the state's largest, and currently spends 12 percent of its food dollars on local products. The goal is to increase that figure to 30 percent, partly through programs like Buy Local Thursdays.

"We're trying to use that as the banner," said Ron Adams, food services director. "We're doing a lot of work behind the scenes to really improve the freshness and the quality of the meals and this was one way to really demonstrate it and show it off to the students and the parents, and get that recognition that it's not just what our parents thought of as school lunch. I think we're doing something very different."

One big example of that is Adams' "Maine Marinara," a red sauce he started working on about four years ago that contains lots of "hidden" vegetables that boost its nutritional quotient: garlic scapes, onions, zucchini, summer squash and golden beets.

First, hundreds of pounds of these vegetables are sauteed and caramelized in a big kettle, then Adams adds 700 pounds of tomatoes for a single batch. The sauce cooks down, then it's pureed with an immersion blender.

"The big thing was, it cut the sodium by half compared to what a canned sauce is," Adams said. "And then you increase the fiber and you increase the vitamins, and I'm not buying a sauce from California in a can anymore."

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