Portland Public Schools Developing Culturally Important School Lunch Menu

The Portland Public Schools Food Service Department, in partnership with local nonprofits and consultants, is working to introduce culturally important menu items to the school lunch options served at the district’s high schools.

This spring, students at Deering, Casco Bay, and Portland high schools are taste-testing food items adapted from traditional Central African cuisine and providing feedback that will help the district decide if the new food items will be incorporated onto the high school lunch menu for next school year. Another goal of the project is to encourage more student engagement and participation in school lunch.

This project is funded by Full Plates, Full Potential, and led by Food Service Director Jane McLucas and local food justice nonprofit Cultivating Community. It is being implemented by several community partners that include FoodCorps, Cumberland County Food Security Council (CCFSC), Good Shepherd Food Bank, and the University of Southern Maine (USM).

“We are Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, and this project is an important – and delicious – way to help us acknowledge and celebrate our diversity,” said Superintendent Xavier Botana. “All our students should have the opportunity to enjoy a wider variety of culturally diverse menu items, which could encourage more students to participate in our nutritious school lunch program. We are very grateful to the wide variety of community partners working with us on this and other projects to ensure food security for all our students.”

This initiative was born from Food Fuels Learning, a network of school and community partners working to build food security in the Portland Public Schools. It is made possible due to the recipe development work done by Khadija Ahmed and Chef Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro with Westbrook Public Schools’ Nutrition Director Mary Emerson.

Ahmed is the owner-operator of Food For All African Mobile Market and the Community Impact Manager for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) at Good Shepherd Food Bank. Cowens-Gasbarro is the executive chef for Healthy School Recipes and a school nutrition consultant. These two adapted traditional Central African cuisine into meals that meet federal nutrition guidelines. Replicating the recipes developed in Westbrook, Ahmed and Cowens-Gasbarro are now working with district high school cafeteria staff to test similar recipes in Portland, while also educating staff about the importance of cultural representation in school food.

Food service staff are learning how to cook these new dishes this spring. Every high school student in the district will also have the opportunity to try and provide feedback on potential menu items. This work aims for students to see more familiar dishes offered at school and encourage higher participation in school meals – a proven strategy for increasing food security and reducing stigma around accessing these nutritious foods.

FoodCorps Service Member and Deering High School graduate Mercia Ckaba-Thomas created posters to educate students about the event: “We share a bond through food that creates better connections between cultures, and celebrates the many differences that exist in the Portland community.”

The first taste test took place on March 24. A meal of smashed kidney beans, spiced beef, and cabbage slaw was offered to students, with great success. Taste test coordinators Mercia Ckaba-Thomas (FoodCorps), Zoe Grodsky (CCFSC), Lily Chaleff (Cultivating Community) and Cowens-Gasbarro offered samples and collected feedback from over 250 students with the support of students from USM Professor Jamie Picardy’s “Food, Power, and Social Justice” class and Food Fuels Learning (FFL) high school interns, Anna Behuniak (Portland) and Leaticia Hannah (Deering).

“I would absolutely be more interested in school lunch, especially if this dish was served.” reported one Casco Bay student. Other recipes expected to be tested are chickpeas and chicken over jollof rice and a chicken and spinach stew. A second student taste test is slated for May 19.

In addition to voting and short-form feedback on the day of the taste tests, students are able to sign up to participate in one-hour focus groups. These sessions aim to gather more in-depth insights on cultural representation in school meals and how to better create an inclusive cafeteria environment that is reflective of the diverse student body here in Portland. The three focus groups are coordinated by Kristina Kalolo (CCFSC) along with facilitation training and support for the FFL interns so they can lead their peers in these conversations.

Professor Picardy’s USM students will conduct data analysis of the feedback to help inform the next stages of the project. Youth leadership and youth voice are centered in each step as an important part of the long-term success of this work. Last year, FFL interns conducted a survey on school meals that received feedback from over 800 students. A main takeaway was that there is a strong desire for more culturally representative and culturally important foods in school meals. This project is an extension of the findings that emerged from this student-led research.

Project members Chaleff, Kalolo, and Cowens-Gasbarro recently presented at a Maine Farm to School Network meeting about this work, with the hope that other districts across the state will be inspired and take on similar work to build more equitable and representative school meals. To learn more about how this work unfolds, you can subscribe to the FFL newsletter at foodfuelslearning.org and follow Food Fuels Learning on Facebook.

If the project is successful at the high school level, the district would consider adding culturally important menu items in the middle and elementary school lunch program in the future.

Lewiston Nutrition Team Wins Farm to School Cook-Off

Nutrition Teams representing RSU 54, RSU 22 and Lewiston Public Schools squared off in the Maine Department of Education’s (DOE) 2022 Farm to School Cook-off finals competition recently. The competition took place in the Child Nutrition Culinary Classroom in Augusta and was concurrently livestreamed on the Maine DOE YouTube channel.

Hosted annually by the Maine DOE’s Child Nutrition Office, the cook-off is a statewide culinary competition for teams of school nutrition professionals and students to promote local foods in school meals. This voluntary competition is available to all school districts in Maine and consists of three regional competitions and a final competition held in Augusta.

During the final round, the teams whipped up some great breakfast and lunch meals utilizing three local ingredients and one USDA food in each meal. As an added challenge, the teams were tasked to incorporate local buckwheat flour, donated by Buchard Family Farms, and local beets, donated by Dig Deep Farm, into their breakfast and lunch meals, respectively.

Congratulations to Lewiston Public Schools for being crowned the 2022 Farm to School Cook-off Champion! They will receive a personalized plaque as well as $1,000 prize money to be used towards school kitchen equipment, both donated from Cambro Manufacturing. For breakfast, they used buckwheat two different ways; making buckwheat granola, and a buckwheat flour biscuit. For lunch, they made a soft chicken taco with cilantro rice, and used beets two ways in a flavorful salad and salsa.

A great day was had by all! All of the teams recipes from this year will be compiled and put into a 2022 Farm to School Cook-book and shared with schools across the state.

School Nutrition Teams from RSU 54 and RSU 12 Square off at First Regional Event of Maine DOE Farm to School Cook-Off

The RSU 12 Palermo Panthers and RSU 54 Team Son-day squared off in the Maine Department of Education’s (DOE) first regional Farm to School Cook-off on March 23rd. The competition was held at the Westbrook Regional Vocational Center and is the first of three regional competitions that will take place this month, sponsored by the DOE’s Child Nutrition Office.

The school teams, consisting of one school nutrition professional and one student, were tasked with creating a breakfast and lunch meal using three local ingredients, including buckwheat flour as the breakfast “challenge” ingredient and beets as the lunch “challenge” ingredient, as well as one USDA food.

Mike Flynn and Ben Bragg from the Palermo Panthers cooked up a breakfast “paco”, which consisted of egg and cheese rolled into a buckwheat flour pancake.

Mike and Ben from RSU 12
Mike and Ben from RSU 12

Gina Bailey and her son Caleb Pratt from Team Son-day whipped up a breakfast flower waffle using buckwheat flour, and presented their dish in the shape of a flower with fruit as the pedals and stem. Both teams created a beet smoothie, using a kid-friendly approach to a less familiar vegetable.

For lunch, the Palermo Panthers made “muchos tacos” using various proteins, served on top of a homemade buckwheat flour tortilla, with a beet/carrot slaw on the side. Team Son-day cooked grilled chicken with red flannel hash, a buckwheat biscuit, and heart shaped watermelon on the side.

Gina handing her breakfast plate to the judges
Gina handing her breakfast plate to the judges

Team Son-day, who has been competing in the cook-off for several years, walked away with the win. They dedicated this event to their late mother and grandmother, and the dishes were specially crafted with her in mind.

A great day was had by all! Following two more regional cookoffs set for March 29th and March 31st, RSU 54 will advance, along with winning teams from the remaining regional cookoffs, to the finals round which will take place at the Child Nutrition Culinary Classroom on April 26th.

March 13-March 19, 2022 is Child & Adult Care Food Program Week!

The Department of Education is excited to share that Maine Governor Janet T. Mills has issued a proclamation that March 13 to March 19, 2022 is Child & Adult Care Food Program Week!

The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) is a federally funded program that provides reimbursement for healthy meals and snacks served to eligible children and adults. The CACFP supports Child Care Centers, Family Daycare Homes, At Risk Afterschool Programs, Adult Day Centers, and Emergency Shelters. Here are some great stories about what is happening.

Sheila Nevells, Food Service Coordinator from Deer Isle Stonington Elementary School serves a supper meal at their At-Risk Afterschool Program. “Children are offered a good meal before heading home in the late afternoon. They are not left at home waiting for a parent to get home from work. Their minds are engaged in activities involving learning, fun and exercise…”

In 2021, despite the worldwide pandemic, CACFP operators in Maine served over 5,142,071 meals and snacks to those in their care.

Amanda Pulos, Director of Bethel Kids Care in Westbrook shared, “The Child and Adult Care Food Program has allowed my center to be able to feed and provide nutritious foods to all my children that might not have the opportunity to do so at their homes. I provide care for mostly low-income families so some of these kids only get nutritious meals at daycare. And that is possible because of the CACFP.”

Cristen Sawyer, the Food Program Coordinator from Kennebec Valley YMCA Childcare shared, “We will be celebrating all week with teachers utilizing the activity sheets and coloring pages provided on the National CACFP Week website, reading books about healthy eating, and, on St. Patrick’s Day, we will build and present a large fruit rainbow from which each child will choose their favorite fruits for a custom-made kebab at snack time.”

The Maine Department of Education Child Nutrition team would like to thank all the sponsors, centers, and providers for the amazing work you do every day for Maine’s children and older adults!

For more information on CACFP or to become a CACFP Institution please visit: https://www.maine.gov/doe/schools/nutrition/programs/cacfplanding.

Maine Farm and Sea to School Institute 2022 – 2023

The Maine Farm and Sea to School Institute is a unique opportunity to impact your entire community! The Maine Farm and Sea to School Institute is a year-long professional opportunity for Maine schools/districts to develop a Farm and Sea to School (FSTS) program.

The Institute begins with a virtual orientation and pairing with an FSTS Coach, followed by an August 2022 Academy Program where teams learn about the 3 Cs of a FSTS program (cafeteria, classroom, community); discover the opportunities and resources in Maine; develop a vision for their FSTS program; create an action plan to implement that vision; and network with other FSTS champions!

For more information including a timeline and commitment, FAQ, contact information, and how to register visit https://www.mainefarmtoschoolnetwork.org/new-page-4.