RSU 3 looks to serve locally produced, high-quality foods to students
The school nutrition program director for Regional School Unit 3 is looking to provide healthy, high-quality meals to more students in the district with locally sourced foods.
Allison Daugherty, the school nutrition program director, works with up to 13 area farms to purchase beef, potatoes, onions, carrots and other vegetables to serve to students during meal times. In addition to locally sourced foods, Daugherty said whole grain pizzas, burgers and a selection of sandwiches are also available.
In RSU 3, about 70 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch and the district relies on federal funding to help cover the cost of the school nutrition program. As a result, Daugherty said the meals that are served to students are compliant with the National School Lunch Program and the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
Those federal regulations require participating schools to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables and whole grains in the school menu, as well as meet certain standards such as specific calorie limits for different age groups, according to a fact sheet about the National School Lunch Program.
Because some of the food that is served may not appeal to all students — Daugherty acknowledged that items like whole grain tortillas and pastas can be a hard sell — the food services staff offer a variety of entrees and other meal options so that students can find something they like.
“It makes me feel good to serve locally sourced meals,” she said.
The district also offers breakfast to all students for free, and students also have access to snack carts that visit the classrooms over the course of the day. Daugherty said being able to serve breakfast to students is important because hunger can negatively impact a student's education.
While Daugherty said the goal of the district nutrition program is to offer the healthiest meals possible with much of the food sourced locally, she said one of the challenges of the program is the cost of the meals.
In some instances, Daugherty said she calculated that the per pound cost of the beef the district sources locally is less than what it would cost to get the meat from a distributor. However, that is not the case for all foods and as a result, she said the district receives some commodity foods from the government, such as canned fruits, cheeses, pork and turkey among other items.
“We look for the highest quality foods to create meals that fit within the budget,” Daugherty said.
She explained the purpose of the school nutrition program is to be self-sufficient and not require any taxpayer subsidies; however, she said the district did ask for $50,000 from the towns during the budget process to help offset the costs of the food.
One of the keys to making sure the program is self sufficient is to increase the percentage of students who participate in the program.
In an effort to increase the number of students who participate in the school lunch program, Daugherty said the district tries to offer students meals they will enjoy, while also serving them in a way that they like.
For instance, Daugherty said some students in the district are overwhelmed by the number of kids who are in the cafeteria during lunch time. To address that issue, Daugherty said a grab-and-go cart is offered that allows students to grab some food and then go and eat it in an area where they are more comfortable.
She said the district is also working to make students aware that some regulations that were previously in place, such as portion sizes, have been changed. In the past, she said there were regulations in place that established a maximum portion size for meals and some students felt the portion was too small.
Since then, the regulation has changed to establish a minimum portion size for meals that schools that receive federal funding are required to serve as opposed to establishing a maximum portion size.
While making sure students have access to healthy, balanced meals over course of the school year is a priority, Daugherty said she will contact principals and teachers in the districts to send home food with students to eat during the school breaks.
She said the district also offers meals to about 100 to 150 students during the summer starting in July to coincide with summer school and athletic programs.
Finally, starting this month, Daugherty said RSU 3 will be partnering with a number of organizations to offer a farmers market once a month. She noted that although some students may not qualify for the free and reduced lunch, they may still be experiencing food insecurity in their homes. To that end, she said she hopes the farmers market, which is open and free to students and members of the community, will offer them the chance to have access to high-quality, healthy food.
Ben Holbrook is a reporter for The Republican Journal covering general news.
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