Portland High School students eat at a table upstairs at the Portland Public Market House on Friday, at the end of the first school week. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

When school is in session, upstairs at the Public Market House on weekdays during lunch often looks and sounds a lot like a high school cafeteria, albeit a really cool one.

Students from nearby Portland High School fill tables in the high-ceilinged, brick-lined food court, trading stories and gobbling plates of fried chicken, mac and cheese, and fries – lots of fries – during school lunch breaks roughly between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.

School regulations allow Portland High students to leave campus during their scheduled lunch periods, unless their parents object or they are being disciplined for a school infraction. While all Maine public school students qualify for free school meals this year – the state became one of the first in the country to mandate free school meals after federal pandemic school food funding expired last spring – some kids prefer eating off campus.

Seated at a Public Market House table with 10 of his fellow students on the first Friday of the school year, senior Teddy Duffy tucked into his plate of mac and cheese and fries from Jamaican food vendor Yardie Ting. Duffy said he comes here for lunch almost every weekday, ordering mac and cheese or a spicy Yardie Ting sandwich with jerk pork.

Seamus Devon, a Portland High junior, comes to Yardie Ting regularly for mac and cheese and fries, too. “This is my go-to spot,” he said.

Yardie Ting owner Shannakay Williams looked on in bemusement. Yardie Ting’s menu items run from roughly $7 to $23. But like other vendors here, Williams offers student specials, such as a well-balanced plate of chicken, rice and veggies for $5.


“Nobody orders it. Mac and cheese and fries is all they eat. I yell at them every day,” Williams says with a sly smile. “As a mom, I really don’t want them eating mac and cheese and fries every day.”

The Public Market vendors and owners at the kids’ other favorite downtown restaurants, most of them parents themselves, said they feel an abiding compassion for the students. Even if they don’t get to know the kids personally, they feel a duty to feed them well and care for them, almost like proxy aunties and uncles.


Williams said she saw a student sitting with a group of friends one day during the first week of school. He was the only person among them not eating lunch – he didn’t place an order because his debit card was broken.

“I felt really bad, so I walked over to the table and gave him lunch,” Williams said. “I said, ‘Here’s your order,’ and I winked at him as a signal to say that everything’s all right.”

Williams said the young man approached her discreetly afterward, explaining he didn’t have money to pay for his food. She told him not to worry.


“It’s just food, it’s OK,” Williams said she told the student. “We want you to eat. Because if you don’t eat, you can’t focus in school, and then you can’t become a lawyer or a doctor. You can’t help out in society.”

“I feel every student should be able to eat,” said Trinh Le-Tran, owner of the Vietnamese kiosk Pho Huong and mother of a 2-year-old daughter. “If someone comes and they don’t have enough money, I’ll still go ahead and make them the meal. It feels better to know they’ve had something to eat during the day.”

Pho Huong’s entrees run between $8 and $14.50. But for the start of the school year, Le-Tran also offers a dozen $6 student specials, including banh mi sandwiches, burritos and pho. She said pad Thai and fried rice are usually the big specials sellers, and bubble tea with its chewy balls of tapioca is a must for the student set.

Leon Vuong, right, owner of The Frying Dutchman at Portland Public Market House, delivers food orders to Portland High School students on a recent Friday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Leon Vuong, owner of The Frying Dutchman food stall, offers $5 specials like panko cheese corn dogs or fried chicken, each with fries, naturally. He said when he was a high school student in Salt Lake City, breakfast sausage corn dogs at the school cafeteria were one of the main reasons he attended school in the first place. He suspects he may have developed the corn dog student meal with the subconscious hope that the savory, deep-fried treats might make the school day a little better for Portland students, too.

“All of the folks in the general area all very good to our students and are very supportive,” said Portland High School Principal Sheila Jepson.

“I’d like to give a shout-out to City Deli in particular,” Jepson added. One City Center is another popular lunch destination, though management for the building banned Portland High students from eating inside last year, citing multiple fights and incidents of vaping and rowdy behavior. The ban went into effect in February and lasted until the end of the school year.


But in August, building management met with the school to “determine a collaborative solution to ensuring a successful return of students to our professional office building environment. We were able to find a path forward and are excited to have the students back in the building,” Matt Heffernan, asset manager for One City Center, said in an email.

“They’ve been great with our students,” Jepson said. “Like all the vendors in our area, they take on a significant number of students during the lunch hour. It’s a lot of work.”

Indeed, City Deli owner Dalia Esposito was too busy prepping and restocking during the students’ first week back to be interviewed for this story.


Vendors said the high schoolers are almost always respectful and well behaved, and don’t go looking for handouts or sympathy discounts. And of course, they can now eat at school for free.

But kids still want to dine out sometimes, and the restaurateurs said they empathize with cash-strapped students who don’t want to bum money from friends, but also might feel awkward not being able to buy any food.


“I’ve had kids come up to me and ask, ‘What can I get for five bucks?’ And I’m like, ‘A meal,'” said Dila Maloney, owner of Turkish food stall Dila’s Kitchen, where kebabs and other meals run from about $7 to $15.

“I give them a plate anyway,” Maloney continued, noting that she also offers a standing 30 percent discount for students and school employees.

As the mother of three children, the eldest a freshman at Greely High School in Cumberland, Maloney said she feels compassion for kids short on spending money. “If my daughter didn’t have enough money one day, I would hope the person serving her wouldn’t turn her away,” she said.

“If you’re short, they’ll let you take care of it tomorrow,” said junior Chae-Hee Park, adding that the trusting relationship makes for loyal student customers.

But these days, inflation is making it harder for adults to dine out, and the students feel the squeeze, too. Junior Elliott Kimball said he brings lunch to school most days, but that “it’s nice to have the option” of heading to Yardie Ting. “I have allergies to nuts and eggs, but Yardie Ting is a safe space for me,” Kimball said.

Portland High School sophomores Anthony Spradley, left, Ronan Mas, Lucas Perez and Terrance Spradley eat fried chicken from The Frying Dutchman at the Public Market House in Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Senior Aidan Perez said he also plans to pack lunch as often as he can to save money this school year. Still, the opportunity to leave campus and clear his head at lunch proves invaluable sometimes.


“It really helps you reset for the rest of the day,” Perez said.

His dining companion, senior Olivia Brewer, said she usually visits Pho Huong for tofu fresh spring rolls and bubble tea, but sometimes hankers for a slice of pizza from Anthony’s Italian Kitchen on Middle Street.

“They love the slices here,” said owner Anthony Barrasso. “For 30 years, we’ve been taking care of Portland High School kids.”

To show his restaurant’s long roots with local students, Barrasso told a story about when he was being treated in the emergency room at Northern Light Mercy Hospital two years ago, and a physician approached him.

“He picked up my chart, looked at me and said, ‘You’re Anthony. I went to Portland High School, and you used to always take care of me,’ ” Barrasso said. “Now he’s my doctor.”

Anthony’s has about 50 student customers in for lunch on weekdays, making up about 10 percent of the restaurant’s daily business. Like vendors at the Public Market House, Barrasso said he gives kids a break if they don’t have enough money for their slice. “And if they don’t have any money, I just give them a free slice,” he said.

When students return for classes each fall, it means additional work on razor-thin profit margins for owners of their favorite lunch spots. Still, the adults said it’s a genuine pleasure to welcome them back in September.

“It can get kind of noisy when they’re here, but it’s a joyous noise,” said Maloney. “We look out for them. They can come here and be safe. We’ve got their backs.”

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