School Lunches

Winter 2007-2008
by Melissa White Pillsbury

When I think of school lunch (or “hot lunch,” as we called it when I was a kid), I have visions of variegated, colored plastic trays, side compartments filled with some canned fruits and/or vegetables, and an entrée, fresh from the bag and into the oven. Since school food service programs must meet USDA nutrition guidelines for every meal they serve, these meals do add up to some total of nutrition. Nutrition, however, does not always equate to appeal or taste, and a lot of that “nutrition” ends up in the waste cycle sooner than planned. (Picture the thumping of plastic trays against the inside of a large, lined trash bin.)
The reason school food service programs don’t offer more fresh, appealing, tasty meals to children may shock you: The programs are not funded by school districts. (If you know of a school district that does fund its food service program, I want to hear from you.) School food service directors must run their programs not as integral to children’s education, but as if they were businesses. They must bring in enough income to cover expenses, so costs are cut wherever possible.

Consider the choice between fresh corn on the cob from a local farm or giant cans of kernel corn from the USDA commodity program: The canned corn is cheaper to buy and cheaper (in labor costs) to prepare and serve. According to the Maine Department of Education, the average cost of a school lunch was $3.19 last year. In most cases, less than half of that cost went toward purchasing food. [1] I challenge anyone to squeeze a tasty meal of fresh, whole foods from that budget.

Enter Maine Harvest Lunch. Recognizing the value of fresh, whole foods and of supporting local farms and educating students about the local food system, a coalition of southern Maine organizations [2] advocating for good food created the first Maine Harvest Lunch in Gorham schools in 2003. Maine Harvest Lunch was designed to be a seasonal Maine meal served in school as well as a school-wide event to raise awareness about the value of eating locally grown food. Classroom and outside activities included a poster contest, visits from farmers, involvement in menu planning, visits to farms, participation in food preparation, and taste tests of new foods.

Four successful years and lots of public attention to the Gorham program caught the attention of the Department of Education’s Child Nutrition Services Office, which coordinates reimbursement and commodity programs in Maine and communicates regularly with all Maine food service directors. The DOE took the Maine Harvest Lunch concept statewide by encouraging all Maine schools, via communication with food service directors, to serve a Maine meal to students on an annual Maine Harvest Lunch Day (on September 26 in 2007). Directors around Maine rose to the challenge of seeking food from area farmers and creating menus around what was seasonally available.

To help, chef Cheryl Wixson, partnering with MOFGA, hosted a Maine Harvest Lunch Food Service Class, teaching 12 recipes containing ingredients that could be sourced in Maine in September. MOFGA (, the Department of Education ( and the Maine School Food Service Association ( hosted information on their Web sites to help schools have a successful first Maine Harvest Lunch. Resources included a curriculum, poster contest guidelines, seasonal recipes and a list of local food distributors.

Food service directors reported positively on the day, but with concerns that sourcing and preparing local foods was more work and cost more. Many schools mitigated costs by enlisting volunteer parents, community members or students. Others got all or some local food for the day donated by local farms [3]. One director summarized the common sentiment: “It was a lot of work and some extra hours preparing, but the success and compliments made it all worthwhile.”

Many directors also report much higher than average participation in the lunch program on Maine Harvest Lunch Day. Ron Adams, food service director for Gorham Schools, has observed over the last five years that his sales on Maine Harvest Lunch Day are generally up 30 to 40 percent. For a person who’s always looking for ways to keep a program in the black, that could be a strong argument for serving more fresh, local foods in schools. His experience with Maine Harvest Lunch led Adams to allocate 1% of his food budget to local food.

Will Maine Harvest Lunch drastically change school food service purchasing practices? Maybe in a few cases, but probably not generally. Systems currently in place in schools won’t support the change. School boards, through taxpayers, would need to fund the programs. Schools would need fully functional kitchens with trained and adequately compensated staff. Children would need to be educated and coached to try new things and make healthy choices. Farmers would need to grow more food to meet the demand for over 100,0004 school lunches a day. Communities would have to invest facilities to store and process seasonal foods. (Notice the parallels between these challenges and those of other efforts to get more local food on the table.)

The ethic behind Maine Harvest Lunch, however, does present a multifaceted, systemic approach to teaching children healthy, responsible habits. One founding organizer of the Maine Harvest Lunch, Amanda Beal of PROP’s Communities Promoting Health Coalition, says: “This is an educational event with the secondary benefit of schools buying more local food. School lunch programs are treated like they aren’t really part of the educational program when they really are. In the long run, the goal is to work towards changing culture and the way we think about food.”

[1] For other Maine school food-related statistics, see

[2] Gorham School Nutrition Program, Cumberland County Soil & Water Conservation District, PROP’s Communities Promoting Health Coalition, Farm Fresh Connection

[3] Note that this puts an unfair burden on local farmers and should not be considered a sustainable option for schools wanting to source local food.

[4] in Maine, from reports on DOE’s Web site (above): 17,789,526 school lunches were served in 2006, with a state minimum of 175 instructional days per year. 17,789,526/175 = 101,654 school lunches per day.

How Can YOU Get More Local Food in Schools?

Whether you are a parent, teacher, farmer, student or concerned community member, you have a role to play.

Every school in Maine is required to have a Wellness Policy. Some districts have a Coordinated School Health Program, others a Wellness Committee, but every school has staff that dedicates time to health and wellness issues. Use these resources to get local food in the curriculum and on the menu.

Learn from lobbyists who get things done by applying consistent pressure (in this case pressure to allocate funds for purchasing and teaching about local foods). Attend school board meetings as often as board members do, especially when budgets are drafted; communicate with school board members and school administrators regularly; better yet, join the school board!

Be the change: Volunteer! Whether in the classroom, the cafeteria or the school garden, you can plant seeds wherever you go.

Wanted: Buying Club Contacts

Are you a member of a buying club that would be interested in learning about more opportunities to purchase local foods in bulk? If so, please contact Melissa White Pillsbury, organic marketing coordinator, MOFGA, (207) 568-4142, [email protected].

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