Deborah Jendrasko prepares the free bag lunches for students at Deering High School in July 2021. Maine was one of the first states to make school breakfast and lunch free for all students. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Full Plates Full Potential has been awarded $10 million by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to dramatically increase the use of local ingredients in school meals and ensure school nutrition workers have the skills and equipment needed to use them.

The nonprofit, which advocates for ending childhood hunger, was one of four organizations nationwide – and the only one east of Chicago – to receive a share of the $50 million from the USDA’s Healthy Meals Incentives Initiative. It is the program’s first major award of government funding.

“This is a huge deal for Maine,” Full Plates Executive Director Justin Strasburger said Thursday.

The announcement was music to the ears of farm- and sea-to-school advocates across the state, said Martha Poliquin, school nutrition director for Falmouth schools. She sees it as an incredible opportunity to connect students with local food while supporting the local economy.

“Getting more foods grown, raised and processed in Maine onto student trays is fantastic,” she said. “It’s the most nutritious food we can feed our kids.”

Maine became a national leader in school meal programs after creating local food purchasing incentives and expanding the period when students can eat breakfast. In 2021, Maine became the second state to make free school breakfast and lunch available to all students.


This year, Maine lawmakers are considering a bill to expand the state’s Local Foods Fund, which incentivizes schools to purchase produce and other minimally processed foods from local farmers and producers by matching $1 of every $3 a school district spends on eligible local food. Under a bill proposed by Sen. Cameron Reny, D-Bristol, foods for the program would expand, allowing more local businesses, including bakeries, to participate.

Over the next five years, Full Plates will award $8.4 million in sub-grants to partners that foster stronger collaboration between schools and growers and producers; expand in-state processing infrastructure; strengthen farm- and sea-to-school distribution; equip school nutrition teams with the skills and knowledge needed to effectively prepare healthy meals with local ingredients; ensure school kitchens have the equipment needed to effectively work with local ingredients; and instill a local food culture mindset in the school community.

“Today is a spectacular day for students, schools and our state. The USDA’s award and commitment of $10 million dollars will allow us and our trusted partners the chance to build a permanent local food infrastructure for generations to come,” said Justin Alfond, co-founder and vice president of Full Plates Full Potential.

Strasburger said the focus will be on expanding existing collaborations and forming new ones to get more food from Maine farmers, fishermen and other producers onto school lunch trays in districts across the state. That will reduce the distance that food travels and minimize food waste, he said, while also ensuring children have access to vibrant, nutritious food.

The grant money cannot be used for advocacy work, but it will be used to focus on building a culture that values school meals and values local investments to support them, Strasburger said.

Laura Pineo, Full Plates board president and a retired school nutrition director in Skowhegan, said overcoming the barriers school nutrition departments face in working with local producers and obtaining local ingredients is essential to ensuring children have healthy meals at school and to ending childhood hunger.


Providing more training for school nutrition program employees who often lack formal culinary training eliminates a “large hurdle,” Pineo said. With proper equipment and training, employees will be able to better process and preserve local foods. Pineo also emphasized that collaborations with schools could help farmers create sustainable plans for crop sizes and rotations to better meet the year-round needs of the school nutrition programs.

“We all know the growing season in Maine is currently pretty limited and doesn’t align well with the school year,” she said.

Jeanne Reilly, director of school nutrition for RSU 14 in Windham and Raymond, said the district has embraced opportunities to get local foods into school lunches and she’s excited that the grants will allow more schools to do the same. She often gets fruit and vegetables from farmers in town and several times a year brings in beef and yogurt from local producers. That food often has a longer shelf life and serving it to children helps them understand where food comes from, she said.

Reilly is pleased that some of the grant money will be used to train kitchen staff.

“I think that while using local foods is great, sometimes it requires a little more preparation and skills and knowledge,” she said.

The grants announced by the USDA this week are designed to foster innovation to get a wider variety of healthy, appealing foods onto school lunch trays. The other organizations that received funding are Boise State University, Illinois Public Health Institute and the Chef Ann Foundation in Colorado.

Full Plates anticipates opening its first round of requests for applications by September.

“With our successful track record as a collaborative and inclusive advocate for practical, innovative solutions and the support of our dedicated partners from across Maine’s food system, we are well-positioned to steward this tremendous investment and deliver on the promise of healthy, local school meals for all Maine kids,” Strasburger said.

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.