MOUNT DESERT, Maine — You could call them State Food Champions.
It’s not really a competition, but there are honorifics that come with being named the best in all of Maine.
On Friday, Mount Desert Elementary School was honored as being the only school among the 600 or so public schools in Maine to win a Gold of Distinction designation from U.S. Department of Agriculture for the quality of its school food program. Out of more than 100,000 public elementary, middle or high schools nationwide, only 75 in the country have been so honored by USDA’s HealthierUS School Challenge.
Stephen Bowen, commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, and Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, were on hand in the school gym Friday afternoon to hand out plaques to members of the school staff who have been key to achieving the distinction.
“I wish every school in the country were like this one,” Concannon said, speaking to an assembly of the school’s staff and students.
According to Maine Department of Education officials, the school has met the criteria for the distinction by:
• offering at least one serving of whole-grain food each day.
• varying the types of fruits and vegetables served.
• limiting sodium, portion size and calories.
• providing a minimum of 90 minutes per week of physical education or activity.
Bowen, a native of Hancock County, said school meals have changed since his days as a pupil. He added that there were three words that stood out to him on Friday as he visited the school.
“Mediterranean quinoa salad,” Bowen said, referring to part of Friday’s school lunch menu. “When I was in school we didn’t have Mediterranean quinoa salad.”
He added that the school staff and pupils should be “very, very proud” of getting the USDA’s Gold of Distinction recognition.
“You are a model for the rest of the state,” Bowen said.
Among the school staff who received plaques on Friday were head cook Linda Mailhot, assistant cook Jan Carroll, Principal Scott McFarland, school nurse Wanda Fernald, physical education teacher Barry Stratton, and former school health coordinator Maria Donahue. Each was given a standing ovation by the pupils and staff as they walked up to Bowen and Concannon to receive their plaques.
McFarland said that the school has come a long way in the past decade or so that it has, at Mailhot’s instigation, been working to make sure its pupils eat healthful food and lead healthy lives. He said the school is raising money that it hopes to use to build a greenhouse and attached classroom space on the school grounds.
About half the needed funds have been raised for the greenhouse project, which is expected to cost tens of thousands of dollars, according to school staff. As part of the USDA recognition, Concannon presented the school with a $2,000 check to go toward the school’s food program.
“We know our roots,” McFarland said. “We want to create a program that, like the roots of a plant, reaches out more and more.”
The program at the school, he said, is more than just a way to feed children fresh vegetables at lunch, he said. It can create collaborative efforts between the school and local residents and improve the health of local residents beyond the school grounds.
“This can be a model in every community across the nation,” McFarland said.
USDA is not the only entity with a national scope that has noticed. During Friday’s assembly, school officials showed a video clip that aired a few years ago on Martha Stewart’s television show. In the clip, Stewart — who owns a home in the local village of Seal Harbor — sings the praises of the school’s food program and interviews school staff and students about it.
In the video, pupils from the school are shown harvesting carrots at Beech Hill Farm, an organic farm near the local village of Somesville that is owned and operated by the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor; carrying vegetables into the school; and preparing those vegetables to eat in the school kitchen.
Along with MDES, nearly a quarter of Maine’s schools have been honored with other distinctions in the USDA program, compared to 6 percent of schools nationally, according to state education officials. Gold of Distinction is a level above Gold in the program, according to DOE spokeswoman Samantha Warren.
Tripp Middle School in Turner received a Gold designation this spring and several others in the state, including four other elementary schools in the MDI area, have achieved Bronze status in the same program.