PORTLAND — The city’s public schools have committed to serving more local foods, and have a goal of serving 225,000 pounds of local fruits, vegetables and proteins in the school meal programs.
To achieve this, the Portland Public Schools Food Service Department has implemented a program called Farm Fresh Friday. On Fridays, the school lunch menu will have a local entree containing local fruits and vegetables.
The program began Sept. 5 and will run throughout the school year.
Israel Buffardi, a FoodCorps service member for the school district, said he is helping with marketing and outreach, and a big part of that is doing taste testing with students to find out what they’ll actually eat. He said it usually takes a few tries before students will embrace new and different foods.
FoodCorps is a national non-profit organization aimed at addressing childhood obesity by improving the food in schools and teaching kids about nutrition. It is a grantee of Americorps, not a government program. Service members are placed in communities with limited resources to establish farm-to-school programs.
The schools also participated in Maine Harvest Lunch Week. The annual event, which ran from Sept. 22 through Sept. 26, consists of schools all over the state featuring local foods in their meal programs. Portland has participated in the event for almost a decade. This year’s event in Portland featured local foods from Maine-ly Poultry, Maine Family Farms, Spear Farm, Jordan’s Farm, Snell Family Farm, and Oakhurst Dairy.
“There’s always local dairy on the menu every day, and local bread on the menu pretty much every day, depending on what school menu we’re talking about,” Buffardi said. “But every Friday is Farm Fresh Friday, so that highlights at least a couple of different local items. And then even when it’s not Farm Fresh Friday there are still local items on the menu throughout the week.”
Buffardi said that to reach the goal of 225,000 pounds, parents need to know what’s going on.
“If they don’t, they’re not buying into the program, and if they’re not having their kids participate and purchase school lunch, then there’s not enough money to increase buying local foods,” Buffardi said.
Food Services Director Ron Adams said the ultimate goal is to have 50 percent of foods in the school systems come from local vendors.
Adams said the Food Service Department runs on about $3 million a year, with more than $2 million in USDA subsidies. He said other funding comes from catering and grants, and the city subsidizes “anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000 a year.”
“Out of $3 million, we ask for at most about $300,000 a year to help operate this,” Adams said. “So we spend about $1.4 million on food itself and typically, even last year, about 30 to 35 percent of that money is going to local vendors within 275 miles of Portland.”
He said the increased goal of 225,000 pounds of food is achievable because Food Services can talk to farmers ahead of time so they can make plans to buy what’s most available.
“Our average price for fruits and vegetables is less than $1 a pound,” Adams said. “When farmers can plan for it, there’s not as much risk involved so they can charge less money for it. So we try to plan for at least half of our purchases and the other half we kind of look when things are at the top of the market. When there’s more tomatoes than you can count, that’s when we want to buy tomatoes from the market.”
Food is prepared at 92 Waldron Way, which the district bought last year to process the foods. Adams said 2,000 meals a day are made at the facility.
“Farm Fresh Friday is a great way to offer nutritious meals to our students that will support learning while also supporting local agriculture and the economy,” Portland School District Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk said in a press release.
Buffardi also said he is planning to pilot other food related programs, like the Chef to School program, which allows chefs from around the area to talk to students about local food and to perform demonstrations.
“The idea is to ultimately have that be connected to things we’re putting on the menu,” Buffardi said. “Hopefully, this year we’ll be able to identify some new recipes that we’re going to put out. We’d like to get the kids to do hands-on cooking.”
During the 2013-2014 school year, Portland served over 128,000 pounds of local fruits, vegetables and proteins.
Cheeseburgers made with Maine Family Farm’s grass-fed beef are served on a whole wheat Amato’s bun in the Portland School Department lunch program. Applesauce is made with apples from Lakeside Orchards in Fairfield, strawberries are from Fairwinds Farm in Topsham, and mini heirloom tomatoes come from Spear’s Farm in Nobleboro.