Mainers can be proud of their schools for a variety of reasons. Every time I visit a new school I am impressed by the innovative ways they are preparing students for the future. Making changes in the way the students relate to food is no exception. This fall I was particularly impressed by the School Nutrition Department of RSU 71 (Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Searsmont, and Swanville).
We live in fast-paced world, and this manifests in our food system as packaged food and disposable food ware. The RSU 71 nutrition department is bucking this trend, knowing that taking care in the kitchen can have great benefits for the health of students and the planet.
Take a look at RSU 71’s impressive priorities:
Unpackaged Food Only
One goal for the district, initiated by community activists, is to make as much food as possible from scratch. On my visit, they were preparing homemade soup, salad, and sandwiches for lunch. They had homemade muffins for breakfast. The schools offer a vegetarian entrée every day. Fresh fruits and vegetables abounded in the kitchen!
Why isn’t homemade food the norm? Over the decades, schools (like so many other sectors of society) have become increasingly dependent on packaged foods as a way to save time and money. It takes more staff labor and regular kitchen equipment maintenance to be able to provide students with foods made from scratch. Happily, RSU 71 has found that with new Federal nutrition requirements, it can be easier to provide homemade meals for its students by cooking with whole foods than sort through the nutritional contents of each packaged food item offered.
Another goal is to allocate a large portion of the district’s nutrition budget to purchase local foods from area farms. The district has built relationships with area farmers and is always looking for new ways to incorporate new local foods. Kids eat fresher foods, the carbon footprint of each meal is reduced because food doesn’t have to travel as far, and local economies are supported; a win-win-win!
District-wide Composting and Garden Program
RSU 71’s relationship to food doesn’t start and end in the cafeteria. The district has been composting food waste for years. Troy Howard Middle School has a Garden Coach that manages the compost on site and the City of Belfast brings leaf litter to the school so that they have adequate carbon to add to the piles. The garden program has a greenhouse, garden beds, vermi-compost, and composter. Students get the opportunity to grow food for the kitchen, which the kitchen purchases, and that money is used to help support the garden program.
All of these wonderful changes are made possible by a school community that is committed to the health of young people and the environment, and who have chosen to lead by example. Every year hundreds of students experience the pieces of a healthy relationship to food at RSU 71. The ripple effect of RSU 71’s school nutrition program is big, and sure to make Maine a healthier place for all.