Chef David Vargas of Kittery works with Karen Sweeney, kitchen manager at Shapleigh Middle School, prepare lunch of students Wednesday. Credit: Rich Beauchesne | Portsmouth Herald

KITTERY, Maine — Chef David Vargas knows his way around a kitchen, whether it’s inside his renowned Seacoast restaurants Vida Cantina and Ore Nell’s Barbecue, or even the Shapleigh Middle School cafeteria.

Early Wednesday morning, Vargas blended dozens of pounds of roasted local tomatoes into a rich sauce, soon to be mixed with local meat and poured over pasta for students to enjoy for lunch that day. Vargas was celebrating Maine Harvest Week at Shapleigh, and highlighting southern Maine food production in doing so.

The Shapleigh kitchen had apples from Gile’s Family Farm in Alfred, tomatoes and sweet corn from Riverside Farm in North Berwick, rainbow grape tomatoes from Greenlaw Gardens in Kittery, and tomatoes from Tuckaway Farm in Lee, New Hampshire.

Students were getting a lesson in local all week long. On Monday, fourth-graders shucked the corn.

“I think it made it more exciting for them to come eat lunch that day because they helped make it,” said Shapleigh kitchen manager Karen Sweeney.

Vargas’ Wednesday lunch was a pasta bolognese served with bread sticks. The sauce included a mix of pork and beef bought directly from Maine Meat in Kittery Foreside.

Vargas has been volunteering in the Kittery school district kitchens for the last three years. The Kittery resident and father is often seen flipping omelettes, sharing his street corn recipe or creating fresh sauces. Vargas said his volunteer work started with a chicken Parmesan lunch he did for students that prompted him to ask Kittery school nutrition director Wendy Collins how he could help more.

Vargas’ daughter is in third grade and his son in sixth grade.

“It’s nice to be able to (throw in the volunteering) here and there since my kids are in the district and we’re part of this community,” he said.

Vargas’ Portsmouth Mexican restaurant Vida Cantina also donated the food for last year’s Shapleigh talent show.

“It’s always a treat to have David come,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney had pre-roasted the tomatoes for Vargas, so there was one less step in the preparation process when he arrived Wednesday morning.

“A lot of the kids know me,” Vargas laughed. “A few of them were in here earlier and one was just at our house last night. It’s really fun.”

Vargas talked about how school cafeterias are beginning to utilize local food and generate relationships with farmers and producers. He said, “school lunches have been one way for such a long time, so it’s a slow process to incorporate the local aspect.”

But Kittery schools have been featuring local produce for quite a while; in fact, it’s a theme in the district. Greenhouses and gardens are available for student learning purposes and experimentation, and the summer and after-school garden program at Traip Academy donates unused food to the school’s kitchen. The Traip kitchen is apparently “notorious” for making kale chips from the garden.

“This time of year, farms are in an abundance,” Vargas said. “Tomatoes are in abundance right now, for example.” He noted many local farms are looking for ways to give away their excess crop, and donating to school cafeterias is a great way to do that.

Vargas did say, however, it takes the “right people in the right positions in the school system” to show commitment to incorporating local food into students’ diets.

“For a long time there’s been a disconnect between schools and their communities because funds are limited,” he said.

Sweeney said the Shapleigh kitchen staff regularly post signs to let students know where certain fruits and vegetables come from. Greenlaw Gardens, for example, is a great friend of the Kittery school nutrition program and supplies Shapleigh year round with tomatoes, carrots and lettuce.

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