At Mount Desert Elementary School, students and staff took Maine’s annual Harvest Lunch Week very seriously by incorporating local ingredients into their lunch menu five days in a row, with some produce from as nearby as the school’s own backyard.
For this year’s Harvest Lunch Week, held September 24 through 28, Mount Desert celebrated a harvest-related theme each day.
Students in grades K-8 worked in the kitchen with school cook Linda Mailhot to learn more about Maine-made produce and the importance of using local ingredients. “It’s like the whole school’s in and out of here all the time,” Mailhot said. “Everybody gets into the meals—even the teachers.”
Throughout the week, kindergarten and first grade students helped harvest beets and butternut squash from the school’s garden for pizza toppings; two Mount Desert Elementary alumni chefs provided recipes for stuffed Swiss chard rolls and harvest squash and apple soup; and students assisted Mailhot in preparing lobster rolls made with lobster caught off Mount Desert Island’s shore.
The school’s three raised garden beds, from which the Swiss chard and squash were harvested, are also brimming with kale, leeks and tomatoes. Parents largely maintain the garden, though students help and compost waste food for fertilizer. “We got so much of what we used this year out of our own garden,” said Mailhot, “so that saved me some money, which I could spend on lobster.”
Mailhot and Jan Carroll, who also works in the kitchen, are celebrities among their students. “They’re great cooks,” said seventh grade student Lysso Sanborn. “They’re also very cheerful and very friendly.”
With Mailhot and Carroll’s enthusiasm, their Harvest Lunch Week activities extended beyond the cafeteria’s walls. Mount Desert invited Healthy Acadia, a non-profit organization dedicated to building healthy communities in the area, to conduct apple cider pressing with kids during recess. After Mailhot boiled the juice, students were able to drink the cider they had pressed themselves.
Though the Maine DOE’s nutrition team established Harvest Lunch Week decades ago, the celebration was reintroduced five years ago after a more than 10-year hiatus due to funding issues. Participation in the event is completely voluntary, but most schools statewide take part. While the Department supports schools’ efforts, cafeteria staff assume the responsibility of organizing the week’s festivities.
“The nutrition team does a ‘Local Foods to Local Schools’ meeting once a year so that we can give ideas and schools can share ideas with each other,” said Walter Beesley, child nutrition specialist at the Maine DOE. “Part of the purpose of Harvest Lunch is to have schools find farmers or gardens so they can establish a relationship with them for the entire year.
“Schools can support local farmers and vice versa,” he said. “It’s an important relationship for our schools and Maine’s economy.”
At Mount Desert Elementary, students and staff practice healthy and local eating year-round. The lunchroom boasts a fresh fruit and vegetable bar every day, to accompany the main course.
Teachers on lunch duty endorse the philosophy that students should eat all the food they put on their plates, but Mailhot gives them some freedom to try new dishes. “Duty teachers say if you take it, you have to eat it, but we do this ‘free sample’ thing, which the kids just love,” Mailhot said. “By calling it a ‘free sample,’ they can just try something new and not eat it if they don’t like it.”
Mount Desert’s garden has been providing vegetables to the lunchroom all summer and fall, but production will shut down during the harsh winter months. In the future, the school hopes to find the funding to build a greenhouse, allowing Mailhot to expand her vegetable production to all seasons.
Teachers intend to work features of the greenhouse into their curricula, when the time comes. “They want to use it as a classroom—not just for food,” Mailhot explained.
While this year’s Harvest Lunch Week has come to a close, the Maine DOE encourages schools to buy locally as much as possible throughout the academic year.
If you would like to submit pictures or posters from your school’s Harvest Lunch Week, please email Walter Beesley at email@example.com. Collected materials will be used to promote next year’s event.