How the nutrition team at RSU 89 is serving scratch-made meals that rival restaurants

The nutrition team received a Healthy Meals Incentive grant to hire an extra set of hands around the kitchen to help with expanding scratch-made options for students.
Students eating food at school
The district is using funding from a Healthy School Meals Incentive grant to add additional scratch-made options to its menu. | Photo: Shutterstock

During lunch one day at Katahdin Schools Regional School Unit (RSU 89) in Stacyville, Maine, Food Service Director Denise Tapley received some high praise from one of the students.

“We did parmesan rosemary fries, and we actually cut the potatoes ourselves and baked them in the oven, and I had one little boy come up to me and told me they were way better than McDonald’s,” she says.

Along with parmesan rosemary fries that could rival McDonald’s, the team has recently introduced a plethora of new scratch-made items to its menu, including homemade bread rolls made with oatmeal, beef stew, chicken pot pie and spaghetti.

The new offerings are due in large part to the district receiving a Healthy School Meals Incentive Grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and nonprofit, Action for Healthy Kids.

The grant program aims to assist small and/or rural school districts in sourcing local ingredients and expanding scratch-made menu items.

RSU 89 received just over $64,000, to increase the number of scratch-made meals on students’ lunch trays.

Expanding the team

One of the biggest ways the grant has been able to assist with the nutrition team’s goal of increasing scratch-made options is by allowing them to add an extra staff member.  

“Scratch cooking takes a little more time, so [I thought], if we can get that person in here with us, we can really bust out some cool stuff,” says Tapley.

Staff also received additional training through health system, Maine Health, to assist them as they dove deeper into scratch-made recipes.

As part of the training program, the team spent five days inside the kitchen at Portland high school learning how to prepare recipes that would hold up to the updated changes to the USDA’s School Nutrition Standards, which will further reduce sodium in school meals among other things.

The nutrition team has also been able to continue its partnership with Keith Ridge Farm, which is just ten minutes away from the district. Through the partnership, RSU 89 is able to source local ingredients like tomatoes and carrots, most of which can be delivered within a moment’s notice due the farm’s proximity to the district.

“I can literally email [the farm] and ask, ‘What have you got available for mixed greens today?’,” says Tapley.

Solving the storage problem  

While the act of receiving fresh produce from Keith Ridge Farm is relatively easy due to its location, storing it is a different matter.

At the high school, the current storage setup includes a double fridge, a small fridge, a chest freezer and a milk cooler. To avoid the hassle of running out of storage, Tapley will often store the produce at the district’s elementary school and then deliver it to the high school.

That will be changing in the coming months, however, when the team is able to install a new combination walk-in cooler and freezer at the high school thanks to funds from the grant.                 

“Delivery has been kind of horrific,” says Tapley. “[By] Getting that walk-in cooler and freezer, we can store more of that fresh produce when it comes in and freeze it.”

An additional portion of the grant funds also went toward purchasing a greenhouse which is scheduled to be delivered this summer.

Currently, the district does have its own gardens where students grow produce. The gardens are popular with students, Tapley says, and she hopes the greenhouse will allow students to grow additional produce and extend the growing season.

“Last year, [we] had kale growing out in the garden and the kids will go by and pick it up and eat it,” she says. “So, we just want to extend those gardens a little more.”



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