September 1, 2023

RSU 14 school lunch program among best in nation

By Kaysa Jalbert

It’s more good news for the school lunch program in Windham and Raymond. RSU 14 has been awarded a Healthy Meals Incentive Grant of $124,170 that will allow for upgrades in cooking, staffing, and preparation equipment in several kitchens.

A typical RSU 14 school meal served district-wide from
last year includes barbecue chicken, cornbread, kale apple
salad, oranges, salad bar items and Maine milk. The RSU 14
school lunch program has been identifed as among the best
in the nation. COURTESY PHOTO   
This new grant is part of the $30 million awarded by the United States Department of Agriculture and dispersed among 264 school districts across the nation, with 12 of those districts being in Maine.

Thanks to legislation passed by the Maine Legislature, RSU 14 will also be continuing to provide free school meals for all children enrolled in public school for the fourth consecutive year since the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, participation in the RSU 14 Windham and Raymond school nutrition program has grown steadily, says RSU 14 Director of School Nutrition Jeanne Reilly, which has allowed the RSU to add three new full-time positions to help their staff meet the production and serving needs that the increased participation has created.

“Having more staff in each kitchen will allow our District Chef, Chef Ryan Roderick, and me to spend more time working on healthy cooking and eating experiences for our students, more time to innovate and to continue to strive to be the best school nutrition program,” said Reilly.

The RSU 14 School Nutrition staff also received the International Fresh Produce Association’s Excellence in Foodservice Award for K-12 School Foodservice over the summer. For this award, there were winners in nine different categories including K-12 Foodservices, Quick Service Restaurants, College Foodservice, Supermarkets and Retail Operators, Hotels and Resorts, Hospitals and Healthcare, Business and Industry, Casual and Family Dining, and Fine Dining.

The awards that are granted are based on a series of specific criteria such as creativity in concept development and menu design, knowledge and use of proper fresh produce handling procedures, and produce related special events or outreach.

“We always try to improve our offerings and the meals that we make and trying to do as much scratch cooking as possible and as much fresh produce and as much local as we can so that has grown every year and our participation has grown every year,” said District Chef, Chef Ryan Roderick.

According to a study published in 2021 on JAMA Medical News, by 2017 and 2018 school meals had increased significantly in diet quality and equity and in turn, school meals have become some of the healthiest meals that children eat. This evidence raises the importance of free meals for all as it provides equal opportunity for children to have access to healthy meals that will support their growth and learning.

School meals at no cost save families time and money in their grocery budget and it also provides children access to school meals that offer a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and high-quality protein. In addition, school meals support the local economy and local agriculture.

“We are committed to serving local fresh fruit and vegetables and local protein & dairy foods as well,” says Reilly. “We serve close to 4,000 meals per day, so spending our food purchasing dollars at local, Maine farms helps the local economy and the local farming community.”

With the money from the grant, RSU 14 will now be able to hire more staff and purchase new equipment for their kitchens to allow them to keep up with the increasing participation in the program.

Some of the new equipment including higher capacity kettles and tilt skillets will allow them to make the volume of food necessary more comfortably and easily, as well as new combi ovens that make producing a higher volume of food at a better quality simpler, Reilly said. <

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