Laura Pineo is all about smiling faces and full bellies.

Pineo came to Maine 27 years ago with a degree in business administration from the University of Nebraska, but soon found her real calling – feeding kids.

Pineo has found her niche as nutrition director for the seven schools and roughly 2,600 kids in Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54. She oversees the district’s Community Eligibility Provision, a federal program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture offered under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

The program offers free breakfast and lunch to all students in the district without cost to the family, every day, no questions asked, with no proof of income eligibility required.

“We know that for some children the only nutritious meal that they may get on any day is the one we serve at school,” said Pineo, 57, of Norridgewock. “It’s kind of like a smile, you never know when you smile at somebody if that’s the only nice thing they see all day. I’m grateful for the chance to help other people fill their bellies – not just my family, but the kids here at school.”

She said a child who isn’t hungry all day does better in school.

The Skowhegan district is one of nine in Maine to use the federal nutrition program. Seventeen other schools in six other districts also participate, said Pineo, who is a mother of four children and grandmother of two.

Breakfast each school day morning can consist of cereal or a bagel, fresh fruit, juice and milk. For lunch, there is a salad bar in every school. Some of the food, including winter squash and potatoes, is sourced locally.

Lunch can be a variety of hot dishes, including whole-grain pancakes, pork sausage links, steamed corn, cinnamon applesauce and warm blueberry sauce for dipping.

“They’re nutritionally dense items that children need, and we’re trying to get them to consume more fresh fruits and vegetables every day,” Pineo said.

Brent Colbry, superintendent of MSAD 54, said Pineo has done an outstanding job promoting good nutrition and healthy choices for the students.

“Her work with the Community Eligibility program … has been very important to our efforts to combat student hunger in our communities,” he said.

Pineo is a self-taught nutritionist, but also has received training from state programs and participated in the state Legislative Task Force to End Student Hunger, the Full Plates Full Potential program and the Maine School Nutrition Association.

Nourishing students and teaching them about healthy food is “the fire that burns in my belly,” Pineo said. “It’s what makes me get up in the morning and come to work and try to make it better every day. We’re doing that by building strong children and hoping to teach them things about nutrition that they can take home and share with their families, and perhaps make some different choices at home.”

– Doug Harlow

Read all of our profiles of Mainers to be thankful for in 2015.

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