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Portland schools take local cuisine to a new level

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Portland schools take local cuisine to a new level

PORTLAND — While high-end restaurants on the peninsula clamor for farm-to-table cred, a lesser-known kitchen on the city's outskirts may be poised to outdo them.

Call it the farm-to-school movement.

In an industrial lot off Riverside Street sits Portland Public Schools' Central Kitchen. There, a dozen kitchen employees scramble each morning to prepare food for 2,200 students.

Increasingly, the food students eat is grown on farms throughout Maine. A small amount comes from students themselves.

Last year, the kitchen served 50,000 pounds of local produce and 15,000 pounds of local meats. This year, the kitchen is on track to double the amount of produce, according to Blair Currier, the School District's local food specialist.

Currier received special recognition from the School Board during its Jan. 21 meeting, and School Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk praised him for ushering the food service into "the new age."

"He has helped transform the lunch menu," Caulk said. "As the agent of change, Blair has kept a great attitude despite all the obstacles that exist when transforming a system in place for over 30 years."

New kitchen, greater capacity

On a recent morning, Blair Currier opened a garage-sized walk-in freezer and stepped through the plastic strip curtains. Inside, under brilliant white fluorescent light, sat piles upon piles of produce from the summer harvest.

The food comes directly from local farms, like Snell Family Farm in Buxton, or aggregators of Maine-grown food, like Farm Fresh Connection in Freeport. Currier said he tracks the traditional growing season for peak dates and buys produce only when the supply is at its highest. For that reason, he's been able to double the amount of produce the kitchen serves, while keeping food costs flat since last year, he said.

Last summer, Currier bought 5,000 pounds of tomatoes, 2,000 pounds of zucchini, 2,000 pounds of summer squash, 2,000 pounds of red onions, 1,000 pounds of green peppers, 1,000 pounds of strawberries and more.

Most of the vegetables are cut and blanched before freezing, which helps prevent degradation of flavors and colors.

The kitchen also buys fresh local produce throughout the year, like spinach, rutabaga, cabbage and carrots.

Currier, who has a background in school food service, started working for the district three years ago. His position was initially funded through a $1.8 million grant to the city of Portland from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He spent his first year researching and developing the local foods program, which he based on Vermont's FEED program – Food Education Every Day.

Previously, 23 percent of Central Kitchen's food costs were for locally sourced items. Most of that – about 20 percent – was for Oakhurst Dairy milk. Today, 40 percent of food spending goes to local sources, Currier said.

In September, Central Kitchen moved to Waldron Way from its previous facility at Reed School on Homestead Avenue, where it had been since the early 1980s. That facility had been retrofitted to accommodate the kitchen by knocking holes in the walls between classrooms and widening doors to accommodate pallets. It was inefficient, Currier said.

The space was used differently, too.

"It was very much centered around box-opening, can-opening, that kind of stuff," he said. "The new place is more geared toward making things from scratch and processing local stuff."

The new location, a 21,250-square-foot building, is the former home of a fish processing company, and much more suited to food preparation.

"It took us a while to get the fish smell out, though," he said with a laugh.

The district also won a $100,000 farm-to-school grant from the Food and Drug Administration to purchase equipment, including an industrial-size machine that can peel 50 pounds of carrots at a time and blast chillers that cool foods faster than conventional refrigerators and freezers.

The kitchen serves all the elementary schools in the district, including the islands. The food is fully cooked, rapidly cooled, individually packaged and shipped the next morning in delivery vans to the schools where it is reheated by staffs of two.

Previously, foods were delivered hot. In some cases, the foods were held at those temperatures for four hours before serving. No al dente pasta, in other words.

The middle and high schools have their own kitchens, where food is prepared on site. Still, those locations receive some items from Central Kitchen. In the coming years, the kitchen may grow to serve schools outside the district, Currier said.

At the elementary schools, half the student population receives food through the free or reduced-price meals program. Among the other 50 percent – students who have greater choice between packing a lunchbox or buying a prepared meal – less than 5 percent are eating Central Kitchen's food, Currier said.

If parents began encouraging their children to eat school lunches, especially the local-food items, the economies of scale would improve and the district could buy even more local food, he added.

"The community doesn't really know about this yet," Currier said. "We've put all the systems in place. Now we have to do the marketing to let people know about it."

Changing palates

The food from Central Kitchen can put a twist on a time-honored adage: You can lead students to local foods, but you can't make them eat.

Currier acknowledges that cold-weather crops like kohlrabi, parsnips and winter squash can be a tough sell on the 12-and-under set, so the kitchen has taken a proactive approach.

In conjunction with nonprofit groups like Cultivating Community and FoodCorps, Currier organizes taste tests of new foods to gauge student interest. Throughout February, for example, some elementary students in the district will be exposed to small amounts of collards, wheat-berries and seaweed pizza.

After the taste tests, students will draw either a smiley or frowny face on a slip of paper and submit it like a ballot.

Last week, some second- and fourth-grade students at East End Community School tried winter squash that was provided by Currier and prepared by students under the guidance of Laura Mailander, a school garden educator from Cultivating Community, which seeks to promote local farming.

"Winter squash was a huge hit," Mailander said.

Mailander teaches classes at East End once a week alongside two other volunteers. In the spring, the students plant vegetables; in the fall; they harvest them; in the winter, they prepare and taste foods, and learn about their nutritional value.

During last winter's session, most foods earned smiley faces from the students, Mailander recalled. Blueberry smoothies were very popular. Beet cookies, on the other hand, were less so.

Mailander believes the students' sense of ownership influences their palates.

"Once they've had a hand in cooking something, they're much more receptive to trying it," she said. "If they have a little more connection to squash, if they grew it in the garden and harvested it in the fall, and it shows up on a plate in the cafeteria, hopefully they will take it."

Currier said the taste testing is a work in progress. Students who grew potatoes and leeks might love potato-leek soup, but the students who were uninvolved might never try it.

"We're working on that discrepancy," he said. 

Corrections: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the school district would double the amount of local meats it serves in cafeterias. That amount will remain flat, but the produce will double. Also, the earlier version misstated the amount of a grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The correct amount is $1.8 million.

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.