NEWPORT — As head cook for Albert S. Hall School in Waterville, Ann Marquis is in charge of providing breakfast and lunch for about 225 children every school day. 

One of the most challenging parts of her job is finding breakfast items that children can eat in their classrooms that are also healthful and well-liked by fourth- and fifth-graders.

“It’s hard knowing what we need, finding whole grains and getting kids on board with it,” said Marquis.

On Tuesday she was among food service directors from 32 school districts to attend a food show at Nokomis Regional High School, where 43 food vendors had gathered to present new menu items and Child Nutrition Services led a discussion on school nutrition.

“Everything here is whole-grain. Even though you see cookies, they are all meeting the whole-grain requirement,” said Dave Leighton, Director of Child Nutrition for Newport-based Regional School Unit 19.

For the last five years, Leighton has led the district in organizing the food show, where cooks and program directors can sample new foods and gather ideas for their food programs.

They hold the show during February break, when employees can get away from school without having to arrange for substitutes, he said.

Chris Haddad, a brands specialist for Performance Food Service in Augusta, said the biggest changes schools have made to menu items over the last few years are changes in portion size and increases in whole-wheat offerings.

To comply with nutritional standards, his company is offering bagels in two sizes — 3-ounce portions and 1.25-ounce portions. In addition, they have added a whole-wheat option.

Haddad said he also has noticed greater efforts to identify and label ingredients in menu items.

“When we know what we’re eating, it’s easier to make an assessment of whether it’s the healthiest option or if we need to make changes,” he said.

After walking around to all the vendors and sampling their food, Marquis said she was most excited about the breakfast offerings, including prepackaged mini-pancakes and mini-waffles. She said she also serves a lot of children who have peanut allergies and it was nice to learn that Pillsbury makes breakfast items that are not processed in a plant with peanuts.

Others said they talked with food vendors and other food service directors to take ideas back to their schools. 

“We’re a pretty small school, so we still do a lot of from-scratch cooking; but I like to come to get new ideas on how to utilize what we already have,” said Karen Spearin, who works for Schenck High School in East Millinocket.

With Spearin was her 10-year-old daughter, Payton Spearin, who was helping her mother sample foods. Her favorite things were breaded chicken (with whole-grain bread crumbs) and soft pretzels.

“They just taste better and are presented better,” she said.

Rachel Ohm —  612-2368
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