FARMINGTON — At the 11:20 a.m. lunch bell, Mt. Blue High School students swarmed into the school’s bright food court.

Gone are the days of only having one choice for school lunch. Students filing in line at the cafeteria last Wednesday were met with a diverse menu of food ranging from salads and sandwiches to specialty pizzas and meatball subs.

“(Students) are ecstatic with the food,” Mt. Blue High School Principal Bruce Mochamer said. “It’s like a home cooked meal, and for kids in school having a home cooked meal makes them feel good.”

The wave of positive feedback from administrators and students regarding this year’s food options and quality are in large part due to Andrew Hutchins, who was hired in July to take over as director of food services for Regional School Unit 9, which serves seven schools with students from 10 towns.

Hutchins previously worked for the Maine Department of Education as a culinary specialist, going around to schools across the state conducting training for food service workers.

Since starting at RSU 9, Hutchins and his staff of 18 food service employees in the district got to work redesigning school menus to incorporate more variety in the types of meals they serve students.

“We really took from a ground up look at the menus,” Hutchins said. “The variety of choice is what we’re really striving for.”

With state and federal regulations placing nutritional standards on the food offerings of public schools, there’s often a challenge in getting students to select the mandated serving of fruits and vegetables, Hutchins said. But by increasing the menu options and including more appealing food items, Hutchins said students will have more ways they can get the right amount of fruits and vegetables on their plates.

“(It) can be a challenge because some kids just don’t like vegetables,” Hutchins said. “So by putting out a menu that is diverse enough and with enough options, (a student) can usually find a fruit or a vegetable that they will like.”

On top of the salad bar, sandwiches, hamburgers, chicken burgers and pizza selection that is offered daily, the school lunch menu has a featured entree. On Wednesday the featured item was a meatball sub sandwich. The featured entree item is where Hutchins is taking the opportunity to expand the menu to include more ethnic and diverse food that he says kids these days want.

According to the newly launched Mt. Blue District Nutrition website, featured menu options at the high school since the start of the school year have included items such as teriyaki chicken, spicy chicken fajitas, southern barbecue and American chop suey.

Progressing into the school year, Hutchins said the ultimate goal is to have two featured entrees for students to choose from each day instead of just one.

“(Hutchins is) putting out things for kids to try that they might not have tasted before, really expanding their palettes,” Mochamer said.

With the change in menu, Hutchins said he is trying to incorporate locally sourced products as often as fiscally feasible. Presently the schools serve milk, apples, tomatoes and potatoes sourced from Maine farms and companies.

During their 20-minute lunchtime on Wednesday, freshmen Eli Yeaton and Logan Dolbier said they appreciate the increased offerings. Dolbier said that from last year to this year, the food being offered feels more home-cooked than something you could just make in the microwave.

Hutchins said his experience working with the Department of Education has greatly helped him transition to working in a large school district where he has to craft slightly different menus for a middle school, high school and the five elementary schools.

“There are seven schools here in the district, and every one of them is a little different,” he said. “Going to hundreds of schools around the state, I have seen what works well and what doesn’t work so well. So I can draw on those experiences to customize things for the district.”

A chef by trade, Hutchins is also looking to vamp up the way food is presented throughout the district. With students more apt to choose a lunch item based on looks, Hutchins said he has been training staff on food presentation.

“I’m having the time of my life. The staff has been great, really eager to learn,” Hutchins said. “I’m super happy to see the effect, the positive effect it has had on the kids.”

Lauren Abbate — 861-9252

[email protected]

Twitter: @Lauren_M_Abbate

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