As trucks delivered frozen, dry and fresh food to area schools this week, Andy Madura and his staff at School Administrative District 61 were preparing to serve thousands of meals a day once students arrive Sept. 2.

“It’s like starting a city,” Madura said.

The director of transportation, facilities and food service, Madura, like other Lakes Region officials, struggles to balance the factors that go into school dining menus – price, what children want to eat and nutrition.

Madura said rising food prices and shipping costs make it hard for the food service budget to break even. For the 2008-2009 school year $50,000 was budgeted for the food service program to reduce past debt and create a capital replacement plan for old equipment. Last year, for the first time in years, the food service program came out with a surplus. This year students in SAD 61 will pay 25 cents more for lunch.

SAD 61 orders food jointly through a cooperative with most other school departments in York and Cumberland counties. Madura also buys bulk commodities from the U.S. Department of Agriculture such as meat, dry goods and produce.

Buying in bulk and through the cooperative helps keep prices low, Madura said, but his staff is always comparing prices with local grocery stores to get the best deal.

‘Market it for kids’

Drawing up menus involves a balancing act. School departments must follow federal nutrition guidelines, which specify, among other things, how many calories, fat and nutrients meals should contain. Madura said these guidelines haven’t changed much over the years, but he thinks they will change soon.

Madura also takes into account what food is available and cheap, looking at what he can get from the USDA commodity list first and building a monthly menu from that. “It’s certainly the best way,” Madura said.

“I have to try to market it for kids,” Madura said. “If we don’t market it right, kids are going to bring in a lunchable and a soda.” There are certain favorites that he has to serve, Madura said, such as pizza, though at the high school Madura said, “it’s all about choices.”

Madura said he tries to encourage healthy choices by pricing apples cheaper than cookies, for example.

Staff in each of the six school kitchens in the district prepare food for their own school, instead of preparing food in bulk and transporting it from one school to another. When Madura took over five years ago, prepared food was transported between schools, but it could get cold on the way, Madura said.

This change, he thinks, was one factor in the increase of students eating in the schools’ cafeterias. Madura said well over 75 percent of students ate school food last year, up from 30-40 percent five years ago.

“I’ve really tried to put in home-cooking,” Madura said.

This year SAD 61 received a $10,000 grant from Hidden Valley Ranch to introduce new vegetables to students once a week for 33 weeks.

The grant will allow the district to buy vegetables that may be too expensive normally, train food service staff and buy equipment to keep the produce fresh. Two examples of the new dishes, Madura said, will be baked pumpkin and apple-carrot salad.

“We’re going to try to utilize local farmers,” Madura said.

Green lessons served

In some schools staff and volunteers are going one step further to serve local, fresh food. Steep Falls Elementary School and Rippling Waters Organic Farm have teamed up to bring more fresh food into the cafeteria and teach children about gardening through planting vegetables at the school.

Second-grade teacher Nicole Gleason’s class planted peas, melons, pumpkins, broccoli, carrots and flowers in the spring, some of which they plan to harvest this fall. Gleason uses the garden in her teaching about life cycles.

Gleason, who is a master gardener herself, came out to take care of her students’ garden several times over the summer.

The third-grade classes chose to plant “pizza gardens” with tomatoes, peppers, nasturtiums, basil and onions, and teachers are planning a pizza party this fall. Third-grade teacher Paula Pillsbury said she works the garden into the curriculum when teaching about living things and soil as a natural resource.

This is the second year students have planted vegetables and flowers in nine raised beds at Steep Falls Elementary School.

Staff from Rippling Waters Farm also helped students and teachers put in a 40 feet by 100 feet garden at George E. Jack Elementary School in Standish in the spring.

Over the summer, staff and volunteers from Rippling Waters took care of the gardens, harvesting produce to donate to food pantries and to sell to raise money for next year’s gardens.

“The idea behind growing that food is the food will be used in the school lunch program,” said Richard Rudolph, executive director of Rippling Waters Farm. Pillsbury and Gleason said the cafeteria served lettuce and potatoes grown at school last fall.

Rudolph said the nonprofit farm is also working on a proposal to build a passive solar greenhouse at Bonny Eagle Middle School this fall. The school board will consider the proposal at its meeting Sept. 15. Rudolph said Rippling Waters staff have raised $26,000 so far out of a projected $40,000 for the project.

“What we’re really hoping to do is create a whole new generation of folks who love to garden,” Rudolph said. “It’s kind of a lost art.”

Bringing it to the table

SAD 6 will join with other schools to celebrate Maine Harvest Day on Sept. 17. On this day school cafeterias will serve as much locally grown food as possible.

Windham and Westbrook schools will also celebrate Maine Harvest Day. Both districts received a $500 grant from the People’s Regional Opportunity Program to host a harvest lunch, according to director of food services for the two school systems, Jeanne Reilly.

Reilly is new this year as director in Windham, but has served in the position for 11 years in Westbrook.

Reilly said the biggest challenge for food services this year is the rising cost of food.

It will be hard “to manage cost and still be able to put out a quality product that kids are going to want to eat and is nutritious and fresh,” Reilly said. While Westbrook students will pay more for meals this year, Windham students will not.

“We’re trying really hard to get as much local fresh fruits and vegetables as we can,” Reilly said, adding that in the fall it can be financially viable to buy local, but when it comes to other seasons or buying meat and dairy, the prices are just too high.

Reilly said it can be tricky to meet nutrition guidelines while serving food children want to eat. With healthier ingredients in chicken nuggets and pancakes, for example, Reilly said she can meet both goals.

“We have a way of sneaking those healthy things in,” Reilly said.

Showing off a baby carrot, Nicole Gleason is a second grade teacher at Steep Falls Elementary School. For the second year there is a vegetable garden at the school in order to provide a fresh produce for the school lunch program and teach the children about gardening.

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