Sam Messann, 11, preps french toast coated with Corn Flakes and turkey bacon in the kitchen of Kaler Elementary School in South Portland Tuesday. Messann, along with Lisa Riley, the school’s cook and baker, will reproduce the breakfast dish at the Maine Department of Education’s annual Farm to School Cook-off next week in Augusta. Sean Murphy / The Forecaster

At James Otis Kaler Elementary School in South Portland, a local team was holding practice just after dismissal on Tuesday afternoon, but this team of two met in the cafeteria’s kitchen, not on the athletic fields outside.

The team includes Sam Messann, 11, and Lisa Riley, the school’s cook and baker. The pair will represent the South Portland school district May 5 in Augusta for the Maine Department of Education’s annual Farm to School Cook-off, an event that focuses on promoting the use of locally sourced food and food service products.

“I am pumped for it,” Messann said.

Maine school districts rank highly in use of locally sourced food, according to the USDA’s Farm to School Census. The 2015 census, the most recent available, showed 79% of Maine’s school districts indicate they participate in farm-to-school activities. At the time, Maine ranked fourth in the nation, behind West Virginia (82%), Vermont (83%) and Rhode Island (90%).

Stephanie Stambach, the school department’s child nutrition consultant, said the statewide competition follows requirements that expand the use of local foods and food service.

Lisa Riley, cook and baker at James Otis Kaler Elementary School, gives directions to Sam Messann, 11, in the school’s kitchen in South Portland Tuesday. Sean Murphy / The Forecaster

While around nine teams usually compete, this year there are only four, due to the pandemic, with a virtual qualifying round replacing the usual in-person event. This year, Stambach said, teams presented videos of their work. Members of the public voted on their favorites, and both Riley and Messann will represent South Portland at the finals in Augusta.

The winning team gets a plaque and bragging rights. The point, Stambach said, is to encourage local districts to use local food and get creative.

At Tuesday’s practice run, Riley went over the rules: Teams spend the first hour preparing a breakfast meal and starting a lunch meal, then an additional half hour finishing the lunch. Every year, she said, the required ingredients change.

This year, she said, the breakfast dish had to feature eggs and the lunch had to include parsnips. Both dishes also needed at least two more local ingredients and one USDA commodity item.

Messann and Riley said they are making Corn Flakes and turkey-bacon coated French toast with a hot blueberry and banana bowl. The bread, Riley said, comes from Mainely Grains, right down the street from the school on Kelsey Street. They will also use granulated maple powder from SKORDO, a Brunswick-based business with a shop in Portland. The USDA product will be blueberries and the meal will also feature organic maple syrup from Strawberry Hill Farms in Skowhegan.

For lunch, the team will make a bahn mi wrap with parsnip fries, a sweet chili dipping sauce and mango fruit salad. SKORDO is providing curry powder and garlic powder, Riley said, with parsnips from Alewives Brook Farm in Cape Elizabeth and USDA pork.

It was Messann’s idea to do french toast. Both his parents are chefs, and he said he has been cooking at home since he was 4 years old.

“I cooked steaks, I cooked pizza, I cooked a lot of things,” he said.

It was also Messann’s idea to turn the parsnips into fries, and to use an air fryer to cut down on oil.

“We figured out that it’s a little healthier than the oven,” Messann said. “It sort of tastes like carrots, only a little warmer.”

Riley said this is her third year participating. She chooses her teammates herself, and always manages to find kids who are enthusiastic.

“I found that every student that’s participating with me has been into it,” Riley said. “It’s a real confidence booster.”

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