State cook-off serves students and educators well

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FREEPORT — Competition comes in many forms, including in a small, tidy kitchen at Freeport High School on a recent Wednesday afternoon.

The Holbrook Avenue site served as the Maine Farm to School Cook-Off Finals on April 26. Beginning at 1 p.m., finalists from Yarmouth and Turner-based School Administrative District 52 worked in teams of two prepping, whisking, chopping, flipping and plating their way into school cuisine history. The state Department of Education oversees the cook-off.

Yarmouth won the competition, capping the statewide event. Both school districts’ nutrition directors said the cook-off offered insights and recipe ideas benefitting students and staff. 

This is the second year of the program, which requires teams of adult staffers to use at least two Maine-grown, raised, caught or made food items in the breakfast and lunch menu each couple prepares. This year, the teams had to include two Maine staples in the two meals prepared — wild blueberries and potatoes.

Frank H. Harrison Middle School staff member Nikki Davoren and Nutrition Director Blair Currier represented the green-capped Yarmouth team. Food Service Director David Roberts and staff member Denise Curran represented the yellow-capped team from SAD 52.

It was a timed test. Minutes after Maine DOE Child Nutrition Consultant April Taylor gave the go-ahead at 1:30 to start cooking, the smell of Yarmouth’s crepes and SAD 52’s French toast wafted through the cafeteria. 

Region 10 Culinary Arts program junior Stacia Easler, 16, of Durham, and senior Tyler Lowe, 18, of Freeport, held a clipboard close to their chests, watching the adult teams work quickly, efficiently, and without missing a beat. 

High School Nutrition Director Mike Flynn, of the Bath-based Hyde School, kept an eye on the teams too.

The judges kept scores and made notes used for meal evaluation and the final contest award.

“Fifteen minutes everybody, 15 minutes everybody,”  Taylor called out at 2:15 p.m.

Yarmouth cooked crepes with blueberries and kelp smoothies for breakfast. SAD 52 chose granola-encrusted French toast and blueberry compote for its breakfast selection.

After the judges and Freeport School District Nutrition Director Kim Austin tasted and reviewed the breakfast meal, it was on to lunch. 

Chicken quesadillas and a side of grilled potatoes and vegetables with fresh fruit salsa from the SAD 52 team awaited the judges’ tasting and review. Fish tacos and oven-roasted potatoes marked Yarmouth’s lunch entry. 

Maine Director of Child Nutrition Walter Beasley and state Department of Education Child Nutrition Specialist Stephanie Stambach also watched the afternoon’s proceedings. 

The Yarmouth district serves a bit over 1,000 meals a day. That’s breakfast, lunch and snack items. For the competition, the per-serving breakfast came in at 79 cents and for lunch, $1.44. 

SAD 52 comprises students from Turner, Leeds and Greene. Breakfast made for the cook-off cost $1.08 per serving. For lunch, $1.84. Daily breakfast attendance in the central Maine district ranges from 600 to 700 meals, Roberts said. For lunch, between 1,200 and 1,300 students are served.

Each district works on a tight budget, which must meet state and federal nutrition guidelines for school lunches. Each district tries to be profitable, as any restaurant would.

“The town of Yarmouth gives the nutrition program $65,000 a year to keep our checkbook balanced. The remaining $700,000 we generate ourselves through breakfast, lunch and snack sales. On average we spend $1 on food per meal,” Currier said. 

After the competition, both teams had a chance to reflect on the experience. Currier and Davoren have worked in Yarmouth for three and two years, respectively. Roberts’ and Curran’s tenure in SAD 52 is 13 and 16 years, respectively.

“Nikki and I learned a lot from the experience. Perhaps most importantly is how collaboration is key to bringing in as much creativity to a project as possible. Not only did we bring in our own personal experiences to formulate recipes and a cooking plan, but we also got ideas and feedback from our awesome school nutrition staff, students and teachers. Those meals were very much shaped by our community, said Currier.

“The cook-off also demonstrated that despite the higher cost of Maine grown/caught food and the abundant amount of regulations surrounding school food, it is possible to create school meals that support our local producers and taste fantastic.”

Roberts expressed a similar philosophy about what the competition taught him and Curran.

“We learned that school food service operations play an important role in the educational process of our students. Learning to eat nutritionally balanced meals is a lifelong skill and represents an important investment in our communities,” he said.

“As the single largest meal producers in most communities, school food service operations are in a unique position to facilitate successful farm to table initiatives. Ongoing cooperation between farmers, distributors, and operators is needed to build successful working relationships. Our long-term goals include helping our students to be more aware of where their food comes from and to encourage thoughtful, healthy dietary habits for life.”

Lessons learned from the 2017 Maine competition include a new direction next year, said Stambach. 

“My plans for next year is to change the teams up so that one adult and one student are on each team. I think it would be a great experience for the students. Not all students in the state have the opportunity to attend a culinary arts program so it would be a nice opportunity for those students who have an interest in culinary arts,” she said. “And, another way to involve them in meal prep/cooking and Farm to School.”

Lisa D. Connell can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or lconnell@theforecaster.net. Follow Lisa on Twitter: @connell_ld.

Frank H. Harrison Middle School staff member Nikki Davoren and Yarmouth School District Nutrition Director Blair Currier won the Maine Department of Education 2nd Annual Farm to School Cook-off held April 26 at Freeport High School.

Two different teams competed in the Maine Farm to School Cook-Off Finals in Freeport on April 26. From left are Yarmouth Nutrition Director Blair Currier, Yarmouth Middle School staffer Nikki Davoren, SAD 52 Nutrition Director David Roberts and staff member Denise Curran.

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