WESTBROOK, Maine (NEWS CENTER) --In what could be described as a local edition of Top Chef, two-person teams of some of Maine’s top school cooks faced off today at Westbrook Regional Vocational Center.
Team Portland and Team Songo Locks, following their own recipe and using locally sourced ingredients created two separate meals: breakfast and lunch over a timed period. The meals were then tasted by five judges who would make their final decision on today’s cook-off.
Team Portland, represented by ringers Joe Reed and Judy Demo, cooked up a breakfast of oatmeal fruit saucers with yogurt. The key ingredient is baby Macintosh apples—theirs are from Coopers Farm in Maine. “We do and have historically used a lot of local products in support of not just farm to school but the local economy, and it’s exciting to promote and use indigenous products,” Reed explained.
Team Songo Locks, represented by passionate kitchen workers Joyce Small and Lori Andrews, prepared granola fruit yogurt boats, a favorite among their students. They serve it to students at least once a week, usually at the end of the week. As the team sliced strawberries, they reflected on the importance of their school meal programs. At Songo Locks, they say they see many kids who simply don’t get enough to eat each day and often rely on the school for their only meals of the day. “You can always tell the kids that don’t because they’re like ‘oh my God, yogurt!’ or ‘oh my God, homemade macaroni and cheese.' They love that too, and those are the kids that you just know when they go home this could be their last meal until tomorrow morning,” Joyce Small shared. “It’s very hard. You want to give them like three helpings because you know that’s their meal.” Both Joyce and Lori say things have only gotten worse for many of the students. Parents, out of work have fallen on hard times and “it shows in the students”. They know what they are doing makes a big difference. “When the kids want to give you a hug, or they’re like ‘thank you very much’ you know that those are the kids that really need it and appreciate it,” Small shared.
That kind of deep need makes good nutrition all the more important. The U-S-D-A’s newly released meal pattern calls for more fruits and more vegetables, which creates “an ideal opportunity to bring local products into the schools,” said Walter Beesley, Director of Child Nutrition Services at the Maine Department of Education. Beesley and his department have worked on strengthening relationships between Maine farmers and schools, a natural team in the fight for better nutrition. Beesley calls the partnership educational. “Kids drive the parents, as we know, and it teaches the students a lot of different fruits and vegetables—it makes them request it.”
For culinary student Lindsey Wilcox, who served as a sous chef for the cook-off, watching the school chefs prepare their meals was eye opening. “I’m learning that cafeteria ladies (and men) don’t just take stuff out of a can—they actually put hard work into the preparation, and healthy food is coming out of this.” Lindsey says she plans to open her own bakery once she finishes school. She says she was inspired by the cook-off to be sure to incorporate healthy, locally sourced ingredients.
Lindsey also served as one of the judges. After breakfast, the teams created lunch meals. Tuna salad for Team Songo Locks. Beef chili for Team Portland. Following the requisite taste tests, the panel of judges declared Team Songo Locks the winner. But, as the Maine Department of Education reminded, the kids are the true winners. Two more competitions are lined up over the next month. All of the recipes will be collected and put into a cookbook. A copy will go to each of the Maine schools.