The school year hasn’t yet begun, but RSU14 Chef and School Nutrition & Wellness Coordinator Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro, along with other members of the school nutrition team, are already hard at work preparing for a year of healthy lunches.
As the district moves towards using local products, and cooking from scratch as much as possible, the work behind the scenes increases. On a recent summer morning, Gasbarro-Cowens was busy roasting, pureeing and freezing 500 pounds of tomatoes from Hancock Family Farm, an organic produce farm in Casco.
Cowens-Gasbarro said they are trying to bring more local produce into the schools. Not only does this mean better flavor and higher nutrition, but forming relationships with local farmers can also help the bottom line.
The produce available from local distributors is higher quality as well – in the 500 pounds of tomatoes received from Hancock Family Farms, only around eight of those tomatoes were unusable said Cowens-Gasbarro.
“Eating local and in season is so important because when you freeze these vegetables at the peak of their ripeness all the nutrients are there,” she said. “Often in the winter it’s better to eat a frozen vegetable than to eat one that came from Guatemala.”
It’s not just the tomatoes that are sourced locally. The district is committed to getting a lot of their food from local sources, including meat from Maine Family Farms and Maine-ly Chicken. They have also purchased produce from Chipman Farms as well as Hancock Family Farm.
The school gardens are also being used to supplement meals. At Jordan-Small Middle School, for instance, everything was planted late in the season so they could use the produce during the upcoming school year. Cowens-Gasbarro has already processed kale from its gardens, and will use the garden to bridge the gap with the students. “If they feel it, touch it, taste it and cook with it, they are way more likely to eat it on the flip side,” she said.
Cowens-Gasbarro exposes kids to new foods through cooking club and taste testing, and can teach them the value of local ingredients when she visits their classrooms. A great way to illustrate the difference between local and food from far away is apples, Cowens-Gasbarro said. Children have gone to an orchard and picked an apple fresh from the tree. “They all know how great that tastes, and they all know how unsatisfactory an apple in June tastes – They get that,” she said.
Another major consideration in preparing healthier meals is paying attention to sodium. Canned foods – especially tomatoes, chicken broth, and beans, add high amounts of sodium to the meal. “If at the same cost we could get canned tomatoes we can buy these local, fresh delicious tomatoes and freeze them ourselves – economically it works out and makes sense for us,” said Cowens-Gasbarro.
“This year I’m on a mission to make life a little easier for everyone in the district. When they go to season food or a recipe doesn’t taste as great, salt is a little frowned upon but it’s only because of the processed foods.” Taking out the “sodium heavy hitters,” she said, allows for the use of the right kind of salt to get the desired flavor.
In addition to the tomatoes, Cowens-Gasbarro will be making and freezing chicken broth from scratch, shredding and freezing the chicken meat. Dried beans will be cooked and frozen to reduce the use of canned beans throughout the year.
“What we’re trying to do is just give the kids better nutritional value in their food, make our bottom line better, lower the sodium . Our mission here is real whole foods, and that’s a transition for everyone,” said Cowens-Gasbarro.
Education for both children and families is essential, Cowens-Gasbarro said. “If we’re going to make a dent in the food culture of our country and really change the way our children eat and what they prioritize buying as they grow up, school lunch is the place to do it,” she added.
There are many false impressions as well, perpetuated by videos on social media that suggest that other countries are doing school lunch better. This simply isn’t true, she said. “Just like here in North America, some schools are hitting home runs and some schools are struggling to figure out how to do that. Instead of bashing those schools, ask how you can help.”
In RSU14, it’s all about finding ways to continue improving the quality of food. Recently, a homemade herb roasted potato recipe won a contest, bringing in $2,000 which will be used to help buy equipment for the kitchens to further that goal.