School food service directors and staff at a recent vegan and vegetarian recipe training held by the Maine Department of Education in its culinary classroom in Augusta. Paula Nadeau photo

For the first time, the Maine Department of Education held a training focused on how to prepare vegan and vegetarian school meals.

Local food service directors and staff from seven school districts gathered in February at the department’s culinary classroom in Augusta for a training that was unique, both because it featured plant-based recipes and because it had a focus on serving them to younger students.

The workshop was taught by Michele Bisbee, a child nutrition consultant for the department.

“Plant-based meal options have been around for a very long time and, in the last few years, have really begun to be well received by younger students,” said Bisbee.

In 2019, Portland Public Schools attracted national news coverage after adding daily vegan hot lunches to its elementary school menus.

Mike Flynn, director of student nutrition at RSU 12, which serves pre-K to eighth-grade students in the central Maine towns of Alna, Chelsea, Palermo, Somerville, Westport Island, Whitefield and Windsor, attended the training to get ideas for vegan and vegetarian dishes to add to the district’s elementary menus.


“There are more kids at younger ages that prefer a plant-based diet, whether from their family’s influence or their own preferences,” said Flynn. “We’re trying to menu that alternative, and it was really exciting that Maine’s Department of Education had an opportunity to go to that type of training.”

Whitefield Elementary School offers vegan and vegetarian dishes at least once a week on its menus, and Flynn would like to expand that to the district’s other elementary schools.

“Our goal is to be inclusive and have menu options for everyone,” Flynn said. “The training was wonderful and the recipes were very kid-friendly.”

Mary Emerson, Westbrook’s director of school nutrition, attended the training along with an administrative assistant and an intern, with the aim of expanding the district’s plant-based options for elementary students. She also was looking for hot dishes for a Meatless Mondays program she intends to initiate next year.

Emerson named the Asian salad, the street tacos, the teriyaki wrap, the sweet potato burritos and the cookie dough hummus as standout dishes.

Westbrook schools offer daily vegan and vegetarian dishes at the high school, while the elementary schools offer sunbutter and jelly sandwiches as their only plant-based entree.


“It was a good experience,” Emerson said. “After we made the recipes, we of course got to eat them, and then we went through each recipe and critiqued it, discussing how to cook it for the number of students in our cafeterias.”

Many of the recipes came from the Humane Society of the United States’ Forward Food program, which offers training and more than 100 plant-based recipes designed for school cafeterias.

Melissa Cole, food service and nutrition director for RSU 1 in Bath, attended to get recipe ideas for the district’s elementary, middle and high schools. Cole said she hopes to add more vegan and vegetarian dishes to next year’s menus.

“I went to the training because we have a number of parents in the district who have said they want more vegetarian options,” Cole said. “I was really happy that most of the items in the training were just beans and vegetables” rather than made with plant-based meats.

In Portland, the elementary school menus initially emphasized beans, rice and tofu, while in recent months they have begun experimenting with plant-based chicken tenders, sausage and meatballs. At RSU 12, Flynn recently created a kelp-themed menu to complement the curriculum’s focus on sea vegetables.

A meal of spaghetti and meatballs with Maine marinara sauce showcased kelp meatballs from North Atlantic Sea Foods. The Boston-based company uses Maine kelp in its vegan meatballs, however the district’s pasta contains eggs, making the meal vegetarian rather than vegan.


The other school districts represented at the Augusta training were Kittery, RSU 57 in Waterboro, RSU 2 in Hallowell and RSU 15 in Gray-New Gloucester.

Former Portland food service director Jane McLucas led the vegan hot lunch rollout in Portland and now is serving as the director of child nutrition for the Maine Department of Education. McLucas was pleased with the interest in the training, saying, “The participants were engaged and learned some new recipes.”

In the fall, students in these districts will begin to see more plant-based dishes on their school lunch menus, thanks to the Maine Department of Education’s innovative training.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer based in Portland. She can be reached at

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