BELFAST, Maine — With 80 farmers growing fruits, vegetables and raising meat within 30 miles of RSU 20, the Belfast-area school district, a group of concerned parents thought it was a shame that most of what gets dished out in the cafeterias of local schools arrived via food trucks from major distributors.
Just two percent of the district’s $450,000 food budget, or $9,000, was spent last year on locally grown products. But that number will be creeping up to three percent, or $13,000, in the next school year, which many hope is the beginning of a shift toward local, healthier eating and healthier children.
“We’re making some good progress,” Thierry Bonneville, a member of the parent group RSU 20 Healthy Kids, said this week. “We’re working to improve the quality of food and reduce childhood obesity, which is very high in Waldo County.”
Waldo County children have the highest obesity levels in the state, with 36 percent of kids who live there considered obese, and Maine has one of the highest obesity levels in the nation, according to RSU 20 officials.
Ultimately, the parent advocacy group would like the school district to spend 20 percent of its food budget locally. That number would bring the nine-town district more in line with other communities around the state, according to Linda Hartkopf, the district’s school health coordinator.
Portland spends 20 percent of its budget locally, and neighboring RSU 3, in the western part of Waldo County, spends 40 percent of its budget locally. That figure includes the purchase of three whole cows from a farm close to Mount View High School in Thorndike.
“Investing in your local economy is so vital,” Hartkopf said. “And if you’re serving more whole foods, less processed food, you automatically increase the nutrition density.”
The RSU 20 administration recently invited local farmers to supply produce for the school lunch program through a competitive bidding process.
Produce and meat that’s particularly desirable to the district includes potatoes, carrots, green beans, tomatoes, squash, onions, broccoli, apples, blueberries and beef.
John Piotti of Maine Farmland Trust said it’s great to see RSU 20 beginning to follow in step with other districts when it comes to buying local.
“Waldo County is really becoming a place for local farming, which is wonderful to see,” he said. “And a lot of food goes through school districts. … Anything we can do to increase the markets for local farm products is a good thing. It’s good for the kids, it’s good for the farmers. It’s a real win-win.”
Bonneville said that when the parents originally came together to work for healthier food choices for their children, they may have been too quick to get angry. Then they spent months learning how the district purchases and prepares food for the children. Now, the group tries hard to work collaboratively with the school board and the administration.
“We’re trying not to be the extreme parents, the angry parents,” he said.
When the group has made audits of what’s served in the cafeteria and found items that were problematic — including a turkey pizza that had more than 90 ingredients — they have found the food service director to be cooperative in making changes.
That turkey pizza is no longer served, according to Bonneville.
“We’ve made our point,” he said.
Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley, who said he has heard complaints about the district’s food from lots of his constituents, said it’s about time that change is being made in the district’s kitchens.
“When I look at a menu, I think I’m looking at something from the 1960s,” Hurley, who does not have kids in the schools, said. “For some reason, the parents here put up with it. Clearly, to me, the RSU 20 food service is run for the benefit of the management and the staff — not for the kids.”
Changes can be hard to make, Hartkopf conceded, especially in a district that has been suffering from financial woes.
“It always, always comes down to, ‘It costs too much,’” she said.
Bonneville said the parent group is well aware of the district’s financial concerns.
“What we’re asking isn’t a whole lot. It’s not going to impact the budget,” he said. “We’re just trying to be smarter in the ways we’re designing the menus.”
John Thurston, who manages the Troy Howard Middle School Garden Project, said while working in the greenhouses that he thinks the district’s new efforts to buy local are great.
“There’s so many really skilled farmers in the area, and they need markets,” he said. “The food is good, organic food, what the kids should be eating. Free of pesticides, free of herbicides — and it keeps everything local.”