Students across Maine will have the chance to participate in new farm to school programs thanks to a federal grant. Credit: Courtesy of Martha Poliquin

Food services staff in the Falmouth school department know they have a hit on their hands when parents start calling for the recipe.

A big part of the popularity of those recipes, according to the schools’ food services director Martha Poliquin, is a heavy reliance on local food.

Poliquin estimates that between 25 and 30 percent of the overall food budget is spent on locally grown, raised and processed ingredients either directly from farmers or on food grown by students on the Falmouth school campuses.

School districts around Maine are doing the same thing and now, thanks to a $225,000 federal grant, the farm-to-school movement in the state will put more local food on more school lunch trays throughout the state. The money will fund the creation of the Maine Farm to School Institute that will help schools design their own farm-to-school programs and give them a greater role in the state’s agriculture scene.

This summer the institute will hold its first three-day workshop where teams from six schools will create their own farm-to-school plans. Modeled after a similar institute in Vermont, the Maine workshop will focus on training in finding and purchasing local food, nutrition, agriculture and school gardens.

Previously, the nearest training facility was the Northeast Farm to School Institute in Vermont, which accepts only one Maine school team annually.

Participants will go back to their schools with funding and resources to put their farm to school plans into action, according to Jade McNamara, University of Maine assistant professor of human nutrition and who is heading up the institution.

“The ability to have our own institute and tailor the needs around Maine schools is key,” McNammara said. “Creating school gardens, helping schools buy local produce from farmers is a great way to support our state’s agriculture and support the health of our kids.”

The Falmouth schools have been using local food purchased directly at the source for about 10 years, Poliquin said. Around that same time, gardens and orchards planted by students began to produce steady crops.

“I was able to move the food program into more ‘from scratch’ cooking and less reliance on commercially prepared processed foods,” Poliquin said. “Now it’s so much fun to see students come through the doors into the cafeteria and see carrots or potatoes they grew and harvested on the lunch trays.”

Not only does growing their own ingredients highlight the importance of local food, it also opens the door for learning across the curriculum.

“For some students, hands on is the number one way they learn,” Poliquin said. “You can really teach anything through gardening — history, math, science, art and health, for example.”

The new farm to school institute in Maine will also involve trained college students who will host a one-day workshop for middle school and high school students. This workshop will focus on building or increasing school gardens, creating a school food pantry, food taste tests, cooking demonstrations and food preservation demonstrations.

The college mentors will continue meeting with middle and high school students to assist them as they develop their farm to school programs back in their schools.

“College students will gain important soft skills, such as leadership, problem-solving and advocacy, as they implement their classroom learning into community action goals,” McNamara said.  

Commitment to the local food movement is nothing new in Maine colleges. In 2015, the University of Maine System pledged that 20 percent of all food served on its campuses would be locally sourced by 2020. It hit that goal in 2018.

Local food at the universities got a big push when the international food services firm Sodexo was awarded the UMaine System contract. As part of its bid, Sodexo promised to help attain that 20 percent local food goal.

“Once we reached the goal we started to work with the University of Maine System to expand that local commitment to 28 percent by 2026,” said Dan Roy, Sodexo district manager. “We want to grow a half percent a year after that and have that be sustainable.”

Among the farms sourcing food to Sodexo is Circle B Farms in Caribou, with its 2,300-acre broccoli farm.

For farm owner Thomas Ayer, not only does the deal with Sodexo get his crop into Maine schools, it’s a lifeline for his farm.

“Shipping broccoli with Sodexo allows me to keep everyone busy in the winter time,” Ayer said. “Otherwise it’s a slow time and I have to lay people off.”

Roy feels students from kindergarten through college can taste the difference when their food comes from local sources.

“I really do think students are aware and notice and appreciate the quality of local food and supporting local farms,” he said. “We work hard to make sure they know where that food is coming from.”

That knowledge is key to a sustainable local food initiative in Maine schools, according to McNamara. That, and making sure the students have a voice.

“Involving middle and high school students is a unique approach we are using compared [with] other farm to school institutes,” McNamara said. “By including the students, we aim to prioritize their voice and help them develop farm to school programming that they would be excited about seeing at their school.”

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.