AUGUSTA — Kiara Luce’s concentration couldn’t be broken as she bounced around from table, to fridge, to her cooking partner, Vicki Dill, as she prepared a blueberry smoothie.

As part of the Maine Department of Education’s 2021 Farm to School Cook-off finale, the eighth-grader from Whitefield Elementary School worked seamlessly as she added ingredients to make the smoothie and later, baked fish.

Luce helped lead her school nutrition leader, Dill, to victory as this year’s winners of the competition. Luce and Dill competed against Lisa Riley, a school nutrition staff member at Kaler Elementary School in South Portland, and sixth-grader Sam Messana from Mahoney Middle School, also in South Portland.

According to the three judges tasting the meals, it was a close, “impressive” competition.

“There were interesting flavor combinations,” Justin Deri said. “It was a struggle to choose. I know it’s hard to think about creativity and what could be done in the time constraint, but congratulations on making it this far.”

In the initial stage of the competition, schools submitted  five-minute videos with their ideas. The videos were posted to the Department of Education’s Child Nutrition website, where voting took place until April 2. Whitefield and South Portland schools were chosen as finalists, advancing to Wednesday’s cook-off, which was livestreamed on YouTube.

With a passion for cooking, Luce signed up to participate. She said her favorite meal to make is either chicken or fish.

“In some of the food, I didn’t realize how healthy it was,” Luce said. “It tastes so good I didn’t know it was healthy.”

The two teams were tasked with creating a breakfast meal using fresh eggs from Weston’s Meat and Poultry in Gardiner and, for lunch, fresh parsnips from Goranson Farm in Dresden. Teams had an hour to complete each meal. After an hour had gone by, 30 minutes were reserved for the judges to taste the meals, while the teams went back to their stations for clean up.


Teams were required to use the specific ingredients, as well as meet the “summer” guidelines for a meal the schools would serve. During the school year, a milk is required, along with 2 ounces of meat and grains, and a fruit and vegetable. In the summer, meat is not required, but a grain is, along with either a fruit or a vegetable, according to the Michele Bisbee, the Department of Education’s child nutrition consultant.

“The event helps the students work on their cooking and give them a chance to know how to make a healthy meal,” Bisbee said.

Luce and Dill are from Regional School Unit 12, and were able to incorporate fresh ingredients from local farms and use herbs from the school’s own farm. In addition, they incorporated the fresh fish from Portland Harbor they received through the program, Fishermen Feeding Mainers and the DOE.

For their breakfast meal, they made an egg, tomato and onion breakfast burrito on an herbed tortilla with a side of salsa. Luce helped create the smoothie for the side using blueberries, local Greek yogurt and orange juice.

Whitefield Elementary student Kiara Luce adds ingredients to a food processor during a cooking contest Wednesday in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Dill said the items have been on the school menu in the past, but will be incorporated into the menu more so in the next month. She and Luce chose the items through healthy meals on the DOE’s website.

The South Portland team opted to do a recipe not on the school menu. They made French toast covered in cornflakes, vanilla, egg and cinnamon, with a side of warm blueberries and turkey bacon. Messana picked out the meal because he wanted French toast and bacon.

Teams supplied their own ingredients to ensure they were using exactly what they needed, but could be reimbursed by the DOE. The DOE also supplied cooking tools, herbs and spices.

The food was judged by Martha Poliquin and Deri, who are the Falmouth Schools’ food service director and greenhouse manager, respectively, and Ben Ramsdell, culinary coordinator at MaineGeneral.

Poliquin said she was nervous to be a judge; she participated in the competition in the past with Deri.

“It’s a little more stressful,” she said. “I can’t prepare to be a judge; I can practice cooking. I’m more comfortable in the kitchen than in front of the camera.”

The teams were judged on — creativity, presentation, taste, feasibility, food safety and sanitation, and time management. They had to use the two local ingredients along with a food supplied by the USDA.

Deri was impressed with both teams’ ability to “stay calm” during the event and cited his experience wasn’t “as collected.” As a judge, he said he was mainly looking for food safety and how the participants used their time.

“Martha and I also look at what we can serve,” Deri said of the meals. “Can it be scaled to 100 students?”

The recipes used in the competition and the audition process will be put in a cookbook for the schools to use for meal inspiration. Past year’s recipes can be found on the Maine Department of Education’s website.

“It’s a great event,” Poliquin said. “It challenges us to be creative, to think outside the box and to use local ingredients. It’s great way to patronize what’s out there, and to establish the connection between the farm and schools.”

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