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03/18/2015

Passion, skill take Cape school nutrition beyond government guidelines

Serve enough, but not too many, whole grains. Keep the calories, fat and sodium levels down, but not too far. Be sure the proteins are also within federal guidelines. And top of all that, make it taste good.

Click to view School Nutrition Program presentation of March 10, 2015

A school nutrition program has a lot to chew, but Cape Elizabeth's is doing well according to a recent audit conducted by the state Department of Education. "The Cape Elizabeth Nutrition Program is doing a nice job given all the recent changes to the school breakfast and lunch meal pattern," says the report summary.

What the nutrition director is most proud of, however, is that Cape's program is self-sustaining. "We haven't received any town money, that's including salaries, benefits, anything that's bargained in the contract," said Peter Esposito, director of the school nutrition program. "We've done that for six years - it's getting a little tougher, things are more expensive, insurance is going up. That's all things that come out of our budget," he said.

Esposito used the state audit as an opportunity to report on the school nutrition program at the March 10, 2015 School Board meeting.

While the Cape program has had its hands full keeping up with changing guidelines for nutrition, it has managed to go above and beyond, offering, among other things, a breakfast and lunch to students in summer school programs for the first time this past year.

"Also we partnered with instructional support, and we had some students that I actually worked with closely and we planted a garden," Esposito said. Two students worked in the cafeteria learning culinary arts, he said, and some students have gone on to more formal programs at Portland Arts and Technology High School this year. Student planting and harvesting is something Esposito hopes to expand and he already has his eye on some areas near the High School for more gardens.

There were also field trips to Alewive's Brook Farm, supplier of much of the program's produce, where students picked items for a meal they prepared with all the components necessary to meet nutritional guidelines.

Because in Cape Elizabeth school nutrition isn't just lunch. It's learning - what's in your food, where that food comes from. And it's also fun.

Food for thought

"This year ... for Literacy Week that's coming up we're going to have students send in the recipes from their favorite book," Esposito said. "We're going to try to menu those items. I know we're going to have a lot, but we're going to try to menu that to make it fun for that whole week, and I'm assuming it's going to extend longer than the week," he said.

And, thanks to a grant from the parents association, Esposito plans to teach a 12-week, after-school culinary arts program; and to offer a student cooking challenge that will rival those popular on TV. "I'm thinking (the challenge) is probably going to be on a weekend, and we're going to partner maybe older students with younger students depending on skill set ... and then have chefs from local restaurants come in and judge the food based on our nutrient analysis or guidelines," Esposito said. Then of course there's the taste. And the look of the plate. "But it's going to be 'the tray', not the plate. It's going to be a school lunch," he said.

Home grown and homemade

The nutrition program is continuing to serve local produce for as much of the growing season as possible, and during the meeting, board member Barbara Powers asked if the schools might partner with local growers as part of a fall harvest dinner planned for the 250th anniversary of Cape Elizabeth.

Meredith Nadeau, school superintendent, said the amount of home-grown and homemade items is unique to Cape Elizabeth, and was even a bit unsettling to the state auditor who visited in February. She recalled the auditor saying that the schools had not provided enough label information. "She was expecting - as she deals with most of the schools that she visits - tons of product labels for everything that was being served in the kitchen, but the reality is we don't have as many labels because we make a lot of our items from scratch," Nadeau said.

"I don't think people understand the scope of the work that happens in our kitchens," Nadeau said. "It takes a tremendous amount of time and skill," and she especially lauded Esposito's training and management skills, his generosity, and his passion for nutrition education.

Esposito acknowledged that it would be easier to meet nutrition guidelines by opening a premeasured package. But it wouldn't be as good.

"I believe it's a classroom too, what we have", said Esposito. "What we're teaching is something that (students) are going to carry throughout their lives, so they ought to have the best information that they can," he said. "And that's what we're here for is the kids."