It was still dark out when I entered the door to the Whitefield Elementary School cafeteria kitchen at 6:30 a.m. Inside, Mike Flynn, nutrition coordinator/executive chef for RSU 12, and Vicki Dill, head of the Whitefield Elementary School kitchen, were preparing 400 pounds of haddock received through Fishermen Feeding Mainers, a program run by the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.
Mike and Vicki worked from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. preparing the fish for all the schools in their district. They put each fillet in oil (it holds better than an egg wash and makes it less of a cake), then put it in the seasoned breadcrumbs. Vicki seasons the breadcrumbs herself and is very mindful of not using salt, as schools have been required to lower sodium levels in food. After the breadcrumbs, the fillets are laid out on a sheet pan which are then stacked with others.
Mike and his team have been working tirelessly to bring local food to their cafeterias. To expand this important project, the school applied and was accepted into the Maine Farm and Sea to School Network Institute for the 2023-2024 school year. During the program, participants develop a values-based, school-wide farm and sea to school action plan that integrates curriculum, local procurement, youth voice, equity and inclusion, and family and community connections unique to their school community, according to the Maine Farm to School website.
The school team is paired with a coach, they attend workshops, learn skills, and build an action plan. They network with others and engage their students and community to build a vision, purpose and values for their school food community.
Mike and Vicki are very knowledgeable about food, food systems, and engaging kids. It is clear the Farm to School work excites them. They talk about how the school has really improved their meals, buying local food when possible, making homemade recipes like the schools did years ago, getting away from as much prepared/packaged food as possible.
The school also has a successful greenhouse on site that is tended to all year by students, staff and families. Vicki reports she gets greens from the greenhouse for school lunches even in the winter.
Vicki explains she works with all the grades in the school when creating menus. She talks with each class and gets ideas of what they like, suggestions of their favorite foods. She explains that when each grade gets their meal on the menu, it is announced on the school intercom that today’s lunch is brought to the school by the first graders, etc. This class will come down and help with lunch that day.
The district has taste tests and learns about the local foods around them. Recently Windsor Elementary School had a chef from Boston do a presentation on plant-based seaweed meatballs and the students got to taste and learn about them.
Engaging the students in their meals has been successful. There is buy-in from the school community as the kids learn about different foods, where they come from and taste tests show that they like such things as fish, which they may not have known.
The Farm and Sea to School Network Institute, along with the many other programs I have written about in the last two weeks, have all supported RSU 12 in becoming a school community that supports local farmers and fishermen, connects its students and families to local food systems, and improves the overall nutrition program of the entire district.