Chew on this

RSU 20 board moves to put healthier options on the menu

Local committee angles for more locally grown food
By Tanya Mitchell | Jul 03, 2012
Photo by: Tanya Mitchell At left, RSU 20 Food Service Director Perley Martin addresses the Board of Directors Tuesday night, June 26.

Searsport — The RSU 20 Board of Directors took a couple of steps toward bringing more nutritious meals to school lunch rooms, agreeing to include more locally grown foods and removing a specific kind of item from the menu.

At its meeting Tuesday night, June 26, the board voted in favor of increasing the amount spent on locally grown foods from 3 percent of the total food service expenditure budget of nearly $400,000 (about $13,000) to 20 percent ($78,000). In a second motion, which followed a fairly lengthy discussion, directors voted to stop purchasing what the RSU 20 ad hoc food service committee referred to as "hyper-processed foods."

The nutritional quality of the food served in district lunchrooms has been the focus of a group of local parents and health professionals known as RSU 20 Healthy Kids for more than two years. Tuesday night, members of the group joined RSU 20 Health Coordinator Linda Hartkopff and Food Service Director Perley Martin to present the findings and stated goals of a food service ad hoc committee, which has been meeting since February.

Thierry Bonneville, a member of the committee and RSU 20 Healthy Kids, opened with a few statistics. In RSU 20, Bonneville said, 36 percent of the students are considered obese based on body mass index. Compared to a 33 percent childhood obesity rate in Maine and 32 percent nationwide, Bonneville said the district could do more to put healthier choices on the menu.

Over the past two years, Bonneville said, RSU 20 Healthy Kids has worked with Hartkopf, Martin and neighboring food service directors to see what can be done to make positive changes in the school menus.

"There are a number of products that have a very low nutrition density, yet still meet the [United States Department of Agriculture] guidelines," Bonneville said.

Bonneville pointed to RSU 3, a district that spends 40 percent of its annual food budget on local meat and produce. Since bringing more local food to the menu, participation rates in RSU 3 have jumped from about 50 percent to 80 percent in a few years' time.

"There is the potential here to make more money," Bonneville said.

The district could also benefit from Coastal Farms Food Processing on Route 1, Bonneville said, as the site would be an option for storing foods the district might purchase in bulk during peak season. The group also contacted approximately 80 farmers within a 30-mile radius of the district, explaining in writing the group's interest in buying locally. Hartkopf said five farmers had responded to the letter so far.

The goals of the committee, said Bonneville, include increasing the percentage of the food budget that is spent on local food, while also removing food items Bonneville referred to as "hyper-processed," a term he said refers to products that have a "significant amount" of natural components either removed or added. Bonneville said one of the items that the district formerly carried as part of its breakfast menu, Tony Turkey sausage breakfast pizza, had 95 ingredients. Through the committee's work with Martin, the district moved to a more nutritious alternative that was comparable in price.

Price, as it turned out, was a big part of what drove the discussion among the directors.

"Perley [Martin], is that sustainable in our food budget this year?" Director Tony Bagley asked, in reference to Director Alexa Schweikert's motion to increase the money spent on local goods.

"As long as the prices are competitive with wholesale prices," said Martin.

Director Gerry Reid said he supported the idea, but suggested Martin should have the option of checking in with the board if he finds prices aren't as competitive.

"There needs to be some check-in on cost," said Reid.

Director Denise Dakin questioned how the board could direct Martin to reallocate that much of the food service expenditure budget to buying locally when the committee has yet to provide solid cost figures.

"I don't think we're prepared for this this year," she said.

Director Alan Wood, who also sits on the committee, said if RSU 3 can spend 40 percent of its food service budget on local beef and produce, RSU 20 can move in that direction, too.

"If we vote against this, we're voting against our children," he said.

After some additional discussion, directors agreed to reallocate 17 percent of the existing food service expenditure budget to bring the amount spent on local foods up to 20 percent and to reduce the amount of "hyper-processed" foods served in school lunchrooms.

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