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School lunch never had it so good

New RSU 20 nutrition director aims to involve students in shaping program
By Fran Gonzalez | Jul 31, 2020
Photo by: Fran Gonzalez Tina Cook, Regional School Unit 20 nutrition director, pictured July 27 at Searsport District Middle & High School.

Searsport — Tina Cook is no stranger to cooking.

The Searsport District High School graduate was appointed by the Regional School Unit 20 Board of Directors July 15 as the new nutrition director for the district. She will serve just under 500 students.

Cook graduated from high school in 2001 and studied culinary arts at Southern New Hampshire University, later receiving her degree from Eastern Maine Community College. Cook worked at a number of restaurant and bakery jobs, and for a time operated her own baking business, Simply Heaven Pastries, from home.

Working previously in the kitchen at Penobscot Shores in Belfast, Cook also opened her own food truck, Chef on the Run, in 2016. Currently her truck is parked at Lake St. George Brewery in Liberty, where she serves locally sourced burgers, fries, grilled sandwiches and desserts Thursday through Sunday.

“I am really happy with the (nutrition director) position,” Cook said. “I am into nutrition and teaching kids about nutrition and cooking.”

Her plan is to bring nutrition into the classroom by giving students the chance to taste a variety of produce, and get them involved with their food choices. She is working on a student survey to help shape the menu and hopes to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables at the school in the fall.

Her goal is to make more meals “from scratch,” instead of using prepackaged frozen food, which could contain preservatives, she said, and to use locally sourced vegetables whenever possible.

Farmers have an abundance of produce right now, and she hopes to capitalize on this by buying vegetables in bulk. In the future she would like to start a greenhouse where students can participate in all aspects of growing vegetables for use in school.

Prior to her coming on board, Cook said, the district did not have its own full-time nutrition director, but shared a director with Bucksport.

She sees this as a challenge, building a position from the ground up. “It’s a position I’ve never done before,” she said, but added that in her previous business and jobs,  she has performed “a lot of the same things expected of me here.”

Cook said it is really good to be back at her old high school, though it looks significantly different than when she attended classes there. The school went through a major transformation after she graduated with the “Save our School” campaign, which added onto and renovated the existing facility.

“I don’t think I could find my way in this high school now,” she said. “It is nice to be back — some of the teachers are still here.”

On this day, July 27, the school kitchen was abuzz with activity as cooks prepared food for the summer meal delivery program. Cook said starting this week, new breakfast and lunch items include pancakes, chicken tenders, chop suey and tacos, to name a few.

Today, 139 meals went out throughout the district, she said. The program, which delivers food to students 18 and younger two times a week, goes out every Monday and Wednesday.

The school has a good system to distribute the meals, she said. Cook acknowledged Brenda Littlefied, the district’s head cook, as the “mastermind” of the kitchen.

Everything is individually wrapped and put in totes, she said. The totes are then split up among bus drivers for delivery to students' homes.

Cook said she is excited to teach kids about nutrition in the fall and have them involved in a garden project with the goal of increasing the number of kids eating at school.

Local farmers interested in selling produce in bulk to RSU 20 can contact Cook at tcook@rsu20.org.

Ed tech Becky Stone, left, and cook Carla Rogerson in the Searsport District Middle & High School kitchen, prepare individual bags of watermelon for the summer meals delivery program July 27. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
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