Director of Food Services Andy Hutchins speaks with the RSU 9 Board of Directors on Tuesday, Nov. 28, about the growth of the program and its plans to expand. Brian Ponce/Franklin Journal

FARMINGTON — Chef Andrew Hutchins, director of food services for the Regional School Unit 9, reported continued success of the program to the board of directors on Tuesday, Nov. 28, as it continues to grow and expand within the district.

In his administrative report, Hutchins remarked on the astounding growth of the program in his report a year prior in 2022. While the program traditionally has a participation growth rate of around 2% to 3% per year, Hutchins reported last November a 13% increase in participation for breakfast and nearly 20% for lunch compared to their numbers in 2021.

According to Hutchins, he and his department anticipated the numbers to level off, but that was not the case as data collected from the first two months of school shows an average participation growth of 5.5% at breakfast and 6.4% at lunch over last year’s figures. In his report, Hutchins equated that to roughly 250-300 meals served per day.

Additionally, Hutchins included in his report 76% of students in RSU 9 are participating in the school lunch program and 45% participate for breakfast. For comparison, in their 2017 – 2018 school year, the food service program saw a participation rate of 46.5% for lunch and 25% at breakfast.

“I’m in year six on the board,” Director Carol Coles of Farmington stated. “I first met [Hutchins] when I was just starting on the board and the growth in the program has been extraordinary. [He has] this unique kind of combination of professionalism, foresight, and good humor.”

Hutchins also added in his report an update on a potential milk shortage. Previously, Superintendent Christian Elkington shared news of a potential shortage in milk cartons in his report to the board on Tuesday, Nov. 14.


In his report, Hutchins stated the shortage is nationwide and is the result of a supply chain shortage of cardboard milk cartons. He furthered clarified by stating it is not a shortage of milk, but a packaging issue.

“I hate to even say this out loud, but we’re gonna get through this just fine,” Hutchins told the board. “Through a great deal of creative ordering, working with several vendors, and moving a lot of product around the district as needed, we have not been short a single milk carton in any school.”

Vice-Chair Gwen Doak of Wilton asked Hutchins if the increase in student participation as affected staffing and employee retention.

“We saw such growth last year,” he stated, “and anticipated some of this growth for this year, so we did beef up our staffing a little bit so that on a perfect day, where everybody comes to work, we might be a tiny bit over staffed, but that gives us a chance to catch up on some extra cleaning and extra prep work.”

He added, “Fortunately, our staff is so excited about the participation levels. They really want to feed everybody. They hate to see kids bring in lunch from home.”

Director Debbie Smith of Weld asked if students are able to participate in the program, to which Hutchins stated students did not for safety reason.


“Right now, with the numbers we’re doing and how crowded our kitchens are,” he said, “I’d be scared to death to bring a student into some of these kitchens.”

Hutchins also reported on the success the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable federal grant program, which was implemented at all five elementary schools in RSU 9. The program provides funding to schools with the intent of “introducing elementary school children to a variety of produce that they otherwise might not have the opportunity to sample.”

“They find out which fruits and veggies they don’t like and which ones they do,” Hutchins shared with the board. “I actually had a story from a granddaughter of my kitchen manager here at the high school. She came in couple of weeks ago and said, ‘my granddaughter came home from school the other day with a couple of bags of green peppers and said Granny, I like green peppers now.'”

Director Rich Ruhlin of Industry asked if federal or state level funding was available for locally sourced food.

“There actually is a big push nationwide for locally sourced,” Hutchins stated. Just last month, the USDA announced it awarded more than $32 million for 98 grant projects designed to expand and strengthen local and regional food systems and increase the availability of locally grown agricultural products.

The funding will be distributed through grant program, such as the Local Agriculture Market Program’s (LAMP), Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Programs (FMLFPP) and the Regional Food System Partnerships (RFSP). According to Hutchins, navigating the grant programs and finding which ones would be applicable to their program can prove challenging and time-consuming.


“I think there’s a lot of money out there,” he said, “if you have the time and expertise to apply for the grants and then of course, manage the grants.”

Elkington added to his comments by saying, “Andy and I have talked about some grants that we’ve seen nationally, and really a lot of those grants are based on large districts. There seems to be a lot of effort at the large districts, urban and so forth, but not as much effort or monies for smaller districts, but we’ll keep looking.”

Hutchins added that his focus has been on establishing a central kitchen to process food sourced from local farmers. The biggest barrier, he asserts, is the time and effort that goes into processing locally grown food for safe consumptions, but he hopes a established kitchen in the western region of Maine will help with that barrier.

“With our district, because we’re geographically so large, and with seven schools, it gets real tricky,” he said. “I can bring in 400 pounds of locally grown carrots any given day of the week, but now I’m paying seven people at seven different schools to peel, slice and blanch those carrots, where if we had one facility, we could do that with machinery and take a lot less effort, a lot less energy and a lot less labor to do that.”

Smith followed up with a question on grant funding by asking if RSU 9 could work with other districts to apply for these grants there are meant for larger school districts. Elkington answered by stating it was a possibility.

Hutchins added that this central processing facility that he is developing, which is tentatively titled the Western Maine Culinary Center, would also work as a hub for other districts in western Maine to have access to locally sourced food and information on grant programs to further enhance their food service program.

“Part of my vision for this central [kitchen] is that we could potentially advocate and process for other districts,” Hutchins stated. “If Spruce Mountain doesn’t have the space or facility to take on those 200 pounds a local carrots, we could potentially at least get them washed and peeled and then shipped down there and they come pick them up.”

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