PORTLAND — School lunch is getting healthier in southern Maine, and local schools are winning national awards for it.
Eighteen Maine elementary and middle schools were awarded U.S. Dept. of Agriculture bronze medals last week as part of the nationwide HealthierUS Schools Challenge.
In Portland, East End Community, Hall, Reiche, Longfellow, Nathan Clifford, Peaks Island, Presumpscot and Riverton schools all earned the award. In Falmouth, both Lunt and Plummer-Motz elementary schools earned awards, and in Regional School Unit 5, Freeport’s Mast Landing and Morse Street schools earned awards.
Other award-winning schools were in the Boothbay and Windham areas.
“I absolutely think this is a starting point all schools in Maine should meet,” said school nutrition manager Heidi Kessler, who works for the greater Portland childhood obesity nonprofit Let’s Go!.
To earn a bronze award, schools must prove they offer students a different vegetable each day, and it must be a green or orange vegetable three times a week. Schools must offer dried beans or peas once a week, a different fruit option every day. No whole or 2 percent milk is allowed, only skim or low-fat milk.
Schools must also include nutrition education in their curricula and students must have at least 45 minutes of physical activity every week.
Kessler said Let’s Go! brought Cumberland County nutrition directors together once a month for the past few years to discuss menu items, where to get the best deals on fresh foods and general networking, while helping them apply for the USDA awards.
“It was more than an application,” she said. “They submitted two-inch thick three-ring binders.”
The binders included all the recipes the schools use, menu items and photocopies of product labels, as well as proof the students are getting the proper amount of physical activity.
Portland School Department Nutrition Director Ron Adams said one of the biggest challenges for him is making sure students who may have hunger issues at home get the best meals they can when they’re in school, and working with a centralized kitchen system.
“We have eight schools that have no kitchens in them,” he said. “Quality is always better when you have a kitchen in every school, but that’s not in the cards for Portland.”
Portland also has 52 percent of its students on the federal free and reduced lunch program.
The district has moved to serving whole-wheat buns for hot dogs and burgers, and beans and rice with beef tacos. But even small changes like that have been a challenge.
“The middle school students stopped eating hot dogs because we put it on a wheat roll,” Adams said.
However, salad bars at every Portland school, including 10 installed this summer, have been very popular with the kids.
“They really enjoy being able to make their own decisions. It slows down the line a bit, but even kindergartners can handle it,” Adams said. “They don’t really like the broccoli, but a little ranch dressing always helps.”
Kessler said only 2 percent of schools across the nation meet the requirements for the HealthierUS School Challenge. She suspects most schools in Maine are close to meeting them, but may not be officially recognized because the application process is so onerous.
“Nutrition directors are what I call ‘onesies.’ They’re working by themselves most of the time,” Kessler said.
As a result, it takes help from an outside organization like Let’s Go! to bring them together. Kessler said the organization has been working with York County nutrition directors, many of whom recently submitted the same applications. Somerset County is next on the organization’s list.
Although the award is a four-year certification, Kessler said Let’s Go! is planning to assist Cumberland County nutrition directors in applying for silver or gold status next year.
“We decided as a group it made sense to apply for the bronze level this year,” she said.
Silver and gold levels require at least 60 percent of students to participate in the school lunch programs. Schools in Cumberland County typically have far fewer students participating than schools in poorer areas.
“We’re encouraging parents to take a second look at school lunch,” Kessler said. “It’s not what it used to be.”
Recently, Maine was named the fattest state in New England by the Trust for America’s Health, but Kessler said her group and local schools’ nutrition directors are working hard to reverse that trend.
Kessler said a survey of parents in the greater Portland area showed a 27 percent increase in children meeting at least three of the groups four healthy requirements of five fruits and vegetables, two hours or less of recreational screen time, one hour or more of physical activity and zero sugary drinks per day.
“I truly believe nutrition directors in Maine are leading the way,” Kessler said. “They’re passionate about their jobs, and passionate about their students. They’re stepping up to the plate in a big way.”