Digging into school nutrition

What's for lunch?
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  August 17, 2011

It's not only in the classroom that change is coming to Maine schools (see "School reform Comes to Maine," by Deirdre Fulton). Local cafeterias are revamping their curricula as well.

Cumberland County food-service workers, who prepare and serve hundreds of meals in local schools every day, met this week with John Turenne, a consultant who wants to bring sustainable food to institutions like schools, colleges, and hospitals — "places that have to serve a lot of meals to a lot of people for a little money," as he puts it. Turenne, a former executive chef at Yale University, provided the "reality behind the reality show" for the first season of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution in West Virginia. Now, through his Sustainable Food Systems business, Turenne works to educate institutional cooks about how food affects the environment, local economies, social well-being, and obviously nutritional health.

The program in Cumberland County, where state statistics show that approximately 53 percent of adults are overweight or obese, was paid for with money from the federal Communities Putting Prevention to Work initiative, in collaboration with the Community Food Security Coalition, the People's Regional Opportunity Program, and the city of Portland. Over the course of three days, Turenne will work with food-service workers from the Lake Region, Windham, Raymond, and Portland public schools to help them improve what he says could be a child's "best opportunity all day for a nutritious meal." Following a day of theoretical background in Standish on Tuesday, Turenne plans to go in for hands-on training with cooks at Windham and Raymond high schools on Wednesday and Thursday. Portland staffers will attend the sessions at these locations.

Unlike his work in West Virginia, Turenne faces a slightly less daunting learning curve in Southern Maine. Earlier this month, several regional schools (including ones in Portland, Falmouth, Freeport, and Windham) were honored by the US Department of Agriculture in the Healthier US Schools Challenge, which promotes healthy eating and physical activity at schools participating in the National School Lunch Program.

"These districts are already doing some wonderful cutting edge stuff," Turenne says. "We're going to take what they're doing and kick it up several notches . . . Rather than open up cans of tomato sauce, we teach them to make a five-vegetable tomato sauce from scratch, make it once a week, seal and freeze it."

Other body-, earth-, and tastebud-friendly ideas include mac-and-cheese made with a from-scratch cheese sauce (as opposed to the frightening 33-ingredient slop that comes out of bags), or baked french fries made from (maybe even local?) potatoes.

"We have small budgets to work with," Turenne admits. There's no avoiding the fact that school cafeterias need to purchase some of their raw ingredients as reduced-cost government commodities from the USDA. "It's not yet possible to create a school menu using (only) farm food. But we want people to understand what's possible and always just strive for one more thing."

• In related news, Southern Maine's Democratic US representative Chellie Pingree will appear at the Monument Square farmers' market on Wednesday to draw attention to the difference in price between healthy and unhealthy foods. The appearance is part of a national campaign by the US Public Interest Research Group, which says agricultural subsidies are promoting less healthy foods. Such subsidies also impact what foods are available on a large scale (but at a small price) to school cafeterias.

  Topics: This Just In , Education, Yale University, food,  More more >
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