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Inside the Scoop: Future of school lunches
Don Baldridge of LolliePapa Farm delivers fresh, organic greens to the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School kitchen.
OXFORD HILLS — “As a kid, I remember our hamburgers being grey and flat with something smeared on it in a bun sitting in a steamer,” recalls Richard Colpitts, superintendent of the Oxford Hills School District.
He believes that school lunches have come a long way from when he was a student.
One difference is that Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School’s cafeteria has been integrating local food, like lettuce from LolliePapa Farm, into its menus. While fresh, local produce is expensive, it is possible to incorporate into school lunches.
Colpitts loves and supports the farm-to-school movement. “If students grow food, then they would want to eat it,” he explained.
When Colpitts was superintendent of SAD 39 in Buckfield, he was involved with its farm-to-school movement. One of the program’s goals is to integrate food with academics. The students studied farming techniques and researched different vegetables.
Now, they have a two-acre garden and a veggie stand, with all the money going back toward the garden. During the growing season, the vegetables are used in school lunches.
Pat Carson, school health coordinator for Oxford Hills, is also interested with involving kids in agriculture. Carson has been working at Roberts Farm with the hope of uniting elementary, middle, and high schoolers together in an “outdoor school.”
At this “school,” the students would learn science and how to grow food that would go to Maine Harvest for Hunger. Unfortunately, the “school kitchens are not ready to take on full produce,” says Carson.
Carson works as a school employee and is paid by the Healthy Maine Fundraising District. His exact job description is not exactly clear, but he never has an idle work day.
“I’m always doing something different,” says Carson, “About 25 percent of my time is direct service to kids, 25 percent is for grant writing, 25 percent for policy planning and organization and the other 25 percent is for miscellaneous duties.”
Carson has even volunteered for one week in the high school kitchen.
“It was a lot of fun to work with such an efficient and great group of people,” says Carson, “They are so important to our school district. They have the most immediate consequence for doing their jobs well.”
Carson and Martha O’Leary, SAD 17 food director, have made “huge enhancements” with the school lunch program.
Salad bar attendance in every school has increased over the years and the middle school received a fresh fruit grant.
“The biggest challenge is serving foods in season that aren’t ridiculously expensive,” says Martha O’Leary.
While most of their ordering is through Sysco, fresh greens from LolliePapa Farm are used year-round in the school salad bars. Also, more of the meals come from Sysco rather than the government.
The cafeteria mostly gets ground meat and chicken from the government. “It’s nothing compared to what it was before,” says O’Leary. Also, the fryolator is no longer in use.
Everything, from french fries to mozzarella sticks, is now being baked. Despite this healthier aspect, sales have remained high. Next year, everything, from hamburger buns to pizza crusts, will be whole grain. O’Leary is always looking for new ways to cook healthy food. She’s planning on sharing nutritious cooking ideas with the Food Network's Chopped participant Arlene Leggio.
These improvements have been made without additional financial support. While other districts use tax money to support their cafeterias, Oxford Hill’s cafeteria program is completely self-sustaining. Only when it goes into the “red” does the school have to cover.
“It takes an amazing group of people to pull this off,” says Colpitts. When they have catered for other events, their cooking impressed all. At Mark Eastman’s retirement dinner they made a delicious cordon bleu.
However, both Carson and Colpitts believe that major improvements are still necessary. “People make decisions based on taste, value and appearance,” says Colpitts. Once kids are in high school, what they eat is their choice. However, on average, 65 percent of the students are on free or subsidized lunch.
In some elementary schools it’s more than 70 percent, and at the high school its 68 percent. This limits the students’ choices of what they can eat. In the elementary school, all of the students are only offered one meal along with the salad bar.
“Kids and adults like to gripe about it, but they don’t have a solution,” says Colpitts, “O’Leary is finding solutions.”
Carson wishes that the a la carte items cost more, lessening the financial gap between healthy and unhealthy meals. Also, Carson would like to have certain meals discontinued.
“I can’t understand how we can justify a pretzel and cheese as a meal to serve students,” says Carson. Another issue is that the ovens are always full of pizza, which takes away space to bake healthier options.
“We live in a culture that supports sweets,” says Carson. He believes that what the school cafeterias are emphasizing, can give the wrong message to students.
“Culinary Arts is doing a much better job at giving kids different kinds of cooking,” says Carson, “Culinary Arts contributing to the school lunch food is an untapped resource.”
Most importantly, Carson wants to be “serving healthy lunches to the students who don’t have options for other foods,” in an attempt to lead them on a life-long path of healthy living.
In the end, the students choose what they eat. If they truly wanted to eat more healthy, they could bring food from home or just eat nutritious salads and sandwiches served by the cafeteria.
If more healthy food is purchased, more will be produced, creating more wholesome options overall. However, the cheaper prices and lure of sodium draw in student consumers.
“We wouldn’t be serving french fries if kids didn’t buy them,” says Colpitts.