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

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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

Martha Poliquin, food service director at Falmouth schools, says that focusing on buying local foods "continues to be a push for us."

The school system already buys farm shares and surplus produce from Little Ridge Farm in Lisbon Falls, apples from Sweetser's in Cumberland, and corn from Spear Farm in Waldoboro and R. Belanger & Sons Farms in Lewiston.

And, like many Maine schools, it already has its own school gardens that provide it with foods such as blueberries, raspberries, asparagus, garlic and Swiss chard. Just last week, Poliquin picked fresh peaches from the high school's orchard.

This year, Poliquin said, she'd like to get more feedback from students about what she's serving them, because "I don't want it to just look good on paper. I want the kids to be eating it."

"We want to introduce more students to produce they might not get at home," she said. "That's one of our goals here this year, especially at the elementary and middle school level. If I put it on the menu and you're not familiar with it, I'm not serving either one of us very well. But if I give you the chance to taste it and give me some feedback on it, when you see it on the menu you may be more inclined to choose that item."

Poliquin hopes to recruit parent volunteers this year at the elementary school to do a once-a-month taste test of a new vegetable preparation or entr?item. She's considering, for example, buying some kale from a northern Maine farmer who has an abundance of it this year. "Can we do something to make beets more exciting?" she wondered.

School districts that are part of the York-Cumberland County School Nutrition Purchasing Co-op have joined together to apply for a $100,000 USDA grant that focuses on local foods. The Sacopee Valley school district is the lead applicant, but the effort also includes Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth and a handful of other districts.

"We work with our farmers more and more each year," said Judith Campbell, school nutrition program director for the Scarborough schools, "and farmers are wanting to work with us more and more each year, too."


Peter Esposito, director of food services for Cape Elizabeth schools, said if the schools win the grant, he already knows what he'll use the money for -- a greenhouse. Esposito said he would also like to get the schools' monthly guest chef series going again, featuring chefs from local restaurants.

The Cumberland-North Yarmouth school district has hosted a chef consultant who has visited the schools four times, working with staff and interacting with students. The visits were possible through a small grant obtained with the help of a group of parents who call themselves the "food boosters."

"I'd work with (the chef), and we'd create the menu for the day," said Jon Carlson, director of food services for the district. "The day she came to the elementary school we did cheese and bean quesadillas, we did a brown rice salad, we did a strawberry smoothie."

Before starting her new job at the Windham-Raymond school district, Cowens-Gasbarro attended a "Chefs Move to Schools" training program in Oxford, Miss., organized by the National Food Service Management Institute.

"There are other school districts in the country hiring chefs and really trying to get this ball rolling," Cowens-Gasbarro said. "People really want to make a difference and tackle this childhood obesity problem from the source."

Chefs Move to Schools is part of first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" initiative to fight childhood obesity. The training familiarizes chefs with the new federal school nutrition guidelines and shows them how they can be most helpful to their partner school.

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