Shortly before 7 a.m., the winter sun is barely a glimmer on the watery eastern horizon, but already the kitchen at Mount Desert Elementary School is humming with activity.
Well, “humming” is perhaps not the best word.
The big, brightly lit kitchen is rocking, rolling, rapping and reeling. Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, and Aretha Franklin send up classic tunes from an iPod system on a low shelf as 13-year-old Andy Pierce slices oranges into grin-size wedges and tosses them into a clear plastic bowl. A few steps away, 12-year-old Chapin McFarland carefully sets out neat rows of low-fat yogurt, bottles of water, cartons of skim milk and single-portion boxes of Rice Krispies. At the other end of the long room, 14-year-old Adam Gray and 13-year-old Keating McFarland neatly slice away at a pile of round white potatoes, expertly wielding their sharp chef’s knives.
Aretha is belting out “Your Love is like a See-Saw” and the boys — swaddled in white aprons, their hair covered by paper painter’s caps — shimmy their skinny hips, tap their sneakered toes and shout along with the lyrics. All as they somehow stay focused on their work, and all under the watchful professional eye of Food Service Director Linda Mailhot.
“I think it’s the camaraderie,” Mailhot says loudly above the din, clearly enjoying the boisterous scene. “That, and the chance to work with the coolest lunch ladies on the planet.”
Mailhot and her very cool kitchen assistant Jan Carroll are helping to set a new standard in school lunch programs in Maine. Their efforts to improve the diets of the roughly 160 kindergarten through eighth-grade students at Mount Desert Elementary reflect a growing trend toward integrating classroom education and anti-obesity initiatives with the offerings of the school cafeteria. And, importantly, school kitchens are beginning to pique the interest of budding young cooks.
“It’s fun to come in and hang out, cooking,” says Pierce, moving on from slicing oranges to cracking eggs for omelets. “I love working with the lunch ladies.”
Gray takes a more serious approach. “This program is very helpful to our school,” he said, examining the potato in his hand. “It takes a lot of responsibility to get up early every morning and come in here and make food. And there’s the pride of knowing that without you, the school lunch wouldn’t be as good.”
But is it fun?
“It’s really fun,” he said, grinning.
Mailhot’s approach to student nutrition has caught the attention of homemaking doyenne Martha Stewart, who summers in Northeast Harbor. She and her production crew recently taped a segment about the school kitchen for “The Martha Stewart Show,” due to air at 10 a.m. this Friday, Jan. 9.
Dr. Jonathan Fanburg, president of the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said in a recent interview that Mount Desert Elementary is part of a bigger picture in Hancock County, where a regional coalition has crafted a plan to combat growing rates of obesity and overweight in children and young adults.
Four years ago, Fanburg started bringing together small groups of young people who were trying to lose weight. In a multidisciplinary environment that included access to medical information, nutritional planning, physical fitness opportunities, psychological counseling, and other support, many youngsters successfully lost weight during the 10-week sessions.
Helping parents select and serve more healthful foods at home proved fairly simple, Fanburg said. But as the children and their parents grew more knowledgeable and motivated, it became clear that dietary changes had to occur outside the home as well.
“We often heard ‘I can’t eat school lunch and keep to this healthy diet,’” Fanburg said. That spurred the group to recruit school nutrition staff members such as Mailhot and Carroll and their colleagues at numerous other schools along the Down East coast.
“Most food directors tend to serve healthy foods,” Fanburg said, “but many have no formal training whatsoever.”
In November, 15 schools in the Down East region sent food service staff to a daylong workshop in Ellsworth to learn how to align lunch and breakfast offerings with classroom curriculums in health, science and other subject areas. They also brainstormed ways to involve students directly in the preparation of foods, through activities such as those in Mailhot’s kitchen, as well as culinary clubs, “tasting tables” with unusual offerings, an emphasis on locally produced foods and other activities.
Walter Beesley, an education specialist with the state Department of Education, said Monday that schools throughout the state are revamping their food programs.
“People know more than they used to about nutrition,” he said. “Even kids know more than they used to.” While the federal Department of Agriculture sets the nutritional guidelines for federally subsidized school nutrition programs, Beesley said, schools have quite a bit of latitude in designing meal options that fall within those guidelines.
New this year, he said, is a federal grant to help schools increase the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables served to students outside of the regular meal programs. Fifty Maine schools are participating, sharing a total of $662,000 to get carrot and celery sticks, green pepper wedges, apple slices and other minimally prepared produce into the hands and bellies of Maine schoolchildren. The program, included in the massive farm bill passed in 2008, is expected to be renewed indefinitely, with more money available to states each year, according to Beesley.
The state Education Department also is working to connect Maine schools to local farms, fostering a mutually beneficial arrangement that promotes fresher foods in schools while supporting Maine’s farm economy, Beesley said.
‘The Mustang Cafe’
At Mount Desert Elementary, the sunny lunchroom is dubbed “The Mustang Cafe” and feels less like a school cafeteria than a casual bistro. At lunch, students select from an attractive presentation of fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, whole-grain breads and lean meats. Their trays get the once-over from Mailhot or Carroll — too many carbohydrates, not enough fruit, or no protein, and they’re sent back to the a la carte table.
“My attitude is this,” Mailhot said, eyeballing a young student’s selections. “You have a chance to make healthy choices about what you want to eat, or we can just go back to me just sloppin’ it on your plate.”
Some students do choose the main entree over the a la carte choices. Recently it was roasted root vegetables — most locally grown — and crunchy chicken breasts, a combination designed to meet USDA guidelines. Lunchtime desserts are offered just twice a week, and typically consist of fresh fruits with a bit of granola and a dollop of sweetened yogurt.
Some students bring their own lunches, but Mailhot said she thinks the heightened nutritional awareness at the school is reflected even in the lunches brought from home.
A recent decision to remove pure apple juice from the beverage selection drew some student protests, she said. But once she explained that the sugary juice is loaded with calories and offers little nutritional value, she said, there wasn’t much pushback.
“I mean, if I knew something isn’t good for you,” Mailhot asked one of her helpers, an unrepentant apple juice aficionado, “what would you think of me if I just kept serving it?”