SOMERVILLE — Regional School Unit 12 is getting a big financial boost to further its partnerships to feed students with healthy, local food.

RSU 12 and Rumford-based Regional School Unit 10 will share a $99,853 Farm to School grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Waterville-based nonprofit Alfond Youth & Community Center also received a grant, totaling $48,386.

Both schools districts participate in Farm and Sea to School, a child nutrition program through the Maine Department of Education that provides healthy, local food to schools. The Somerville-based school district will use grant funds to strengthen the sustainability of its current connections with local food producers, while RSU 10 plans to use its portion to replicate the RSU 12 model as it grows its own program.

“We are able to explore more training, get some coaching from experts and even get help with our growing food,” RSU 12 Nutrition Director Mike Flynn said. “Our goals are to partner better with the farmers, learn more skills in the kitchen and, with that kind of financial support, we can get good equipment and be a team that is organized.”

RSU 12 comprises Alna, Chelsea, Palermo, Somerville, Westport Island, Whitefield, and Windsor.

RSU 10 Nutrition Director Jeanne LaPointe said the district has been involved with purchasing local product for more than 10 years, but does not have established connections with farms in the way RSU 12 does. RSU 10 comprises Rumford, Buckfield, Mexico, Hanover, Hartford, Roxbury and Sumner.

The grant will provide LaPointe’s staff with training for the local products. She said some staff members have prior kitchen experiences, but others do not. Most food shipments, if not purchased locally, come prepared or with instructions.

LaPointe said education for staff is necessary to best utilize the local ingredients in lunches, but added that education for the students about what they are eating and where it comes from is important, too. Without the education aspect, students do not know the benefits of the food.

“It takes time and energy to be trained on how to use vegetables like baby bok choy, or how to wash potatoes without clogging the sink,” LaPointe said. “Those challenges come with purchasing locally, with sourcing, and getting the product in a state to get staff to be able to run with it so there isn’t a lot of labor involved.”

Mike Flynn, right, nutrition director for Regional School Unit 12,  cuts hake into portions Oct.20, 2020, while principal Heather Wilson dips the fish into garlic-and-onion-flavored oil and kitchen manager Sherry Owens waits to coat the portions in breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese at Windsor Elementary School. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

LaPointe recalled a time when the school lunch included a baked potato and some students had never had one before. Another time, corn on the cob was offered, but there were students who did not know how to eat it off the cob. Some families in the area do not know how to cook or have the ability to cook at home, she said.

According to the USDA, children with healthier habits at a young age translates to a healthier life, not only when the child is older, but with family at home. The local connection adds to the economy — each dollar invested into the program stimulates an additional $0.60 to $2.16 to the local economy.

“If you start them when they’re little and work with them and have them sample and taste and show what it’s like to grow, it’s easier to take the food into the cafeteria and have it be accepted,” LaPointe said.

The grant is intended to raise annual participation in school lunches by 3% to 5% and local procurement by 3% to 5%.

Joanna Benoit, Maine Farm to Sea Cooperative program manager, said this can be done by offering menus with local foods, increasing marketing efforts and expanding students’ skills within the kitchen. For an example, students may be more apt to eat school lunches if the meal is appetizing and fresh.

“We can do it through the education side, where we explain ‘Here is what we are doing’ and educate around the health and quality,” Benoit said, “hopefully getting past the stigma of school food and show that it’s not only important, but can be local.”

According to Ron Adams, Maine Farm to Sea Cooperative chief operations officer and co-founder of the nonprofit Full Plates Full Potential, both school districts have at least 40% of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. Four schools from RSU 10 have 87% of students who are eligible for the free and reduced lunch; in RSU 12, the highest percentage in the district is 69% at Somerville Elementary School. Between the two districts, an average of 65% of students are either eligible or accept free lunch.

The number of students who rely on free and reduced lunch is factored into the grant, Adams said.

Flynn has taken advantage of most of the offerings of the Maine Farm to Sea Cooperative, and has worked to increase the amount of locally grown ingredients greeting students on their meal trays. He has brought in fresh fish from Portland Harbor and incorporated it into school lunches. Whitefield Elementary won the Maine Farm to School Cook-off in May and the school district regularly incorporates ingredients from the school gardens into its meals. Gardens within the district have served as a learning opportunity for students in showing them where food comes from and allowing teachers to bring students to the gardens to teach skills.

FOOD LESSONS IN WATERVILLE

According to Katherine Harvey, Alfond Youth & Community Center’s grant manager, this is the first year the nonprofit has worked with the Farm and Sea to School program. She said the grant will play a role in establishing a garden-to-table program, and expand the gardens in the center’s 42-foot greenhouse. The greenhouse grows food for the center’s kitchen as a way to educate the children on where their food comes from and so they can experience what they labored.

“We are trying to get the curriculum solidified and we will be using it here in our organization,” Harvey said. “We will help bring kids over from school so they can be taught or do field trips here and work with schools to make sure they can do it.”

Flynn said he will start right away on finding new ingredients and partnerships.

“That’s really our goal,” he said. “‘How do we get one more ingredient that’s perfect?'”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. 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.