HOULTON – At first glance, nothing seemed amiss inside the cafeteria at the Houlton Elementary School Thursday afternoon.
There were the usual sights: pupils lined up along both sides of the big blue lunch tables with trays and brown bags in front of them, unwrapping napkins and clutching sandwiches.
There were teachers encouraging fidgety diners to “sit down” while helping them open their milk cartons.
But there was also something else, something that you don’t often see in a cafeteria full of kindergarten children – empty trays of food.
But clean plates and dirty forks were a common sight on cafeteria tables Thursday, as the youngsters dug into a nutritious plate of locally grown food as part of the district’s “Celebrate Harvest” festivities.
Sponsored by the SAD 29 food services committee, the celebration has run throughout the week. Each day, the lunch menu at all four schools in the district has featured locally or state-grown vegetables, fruits and grains.
Lynn Brown, the district’s school health coordinator, said that the program provides a link between local farmers and schools while also pointing out the benefits of eating healthful food grown within the state.
“So far, it has gone really well,” Brown said earlier this week. “We are using a lot of colorful fall vegetables in the menu, and the kids seem to be enjoying it.”
At the start of the week, the district served baked potatoes and offered toppings such as cooked broccoli, tomatoes and salsa.
The school chefs also whipped up a colorful “Harvest Rainbow Soup” with fall vegetables and offered students apple cider from the SAD 1 School Farm in Presque Isle.
Three years ago, lunches in SAD 29 received a facelift after the district set a goal of making its lunch program more healthful. Gone are the days when pupils gobbled down chicken nuggets and processed entrees. Now, students get more variety in their meals, and some are no longer turning up their noses at greens or whole-wheat rolls.
Today boneless chicken breasts and pizza made with whole wheat crust have become regular staples, as well as seasonal, locally grown vegetables such as turnip, squash and corn on the cob. Brown said that high school students are enjoying a new salad bar that sports a mixture of greens and raw vegetables, and all diners are being served homemade bread products made with equal parts of whole wheat and white flour.
The district’s health and physical education curricula also are being revised.
As the kindergarten children watched older pupils line up for lunch in the cafeteria on Thursday, one boy licked some mashed potatoes off his fork while another nibbled on an oatmeal brown roll while peering over at a classmate who was tasting some buttercup squash.
Most of the pupils were too involved in eating their lunch to say too much about how they liked their fare.
“It’s good,” said 5-year-old Jacob Tapley, who was sipping low-fat chocolate milk and finishing off a helping of mashed potatoes.
“It’s yummy,” agreed Brianna Clossey, another 5-year-old who had nothing left on her tray but a sliver of turkey and a dollop of gravy. “We had soup and baked potatoes [earlier this week], too.”
There is tangible evidence that the revamped menu is benefiting the students, according to Brown.
The district has thrown its support behind the more healthful menu and contributed $24,000 annually to the food services budget to help upgrade student meals.
Brown credited the changes with helping to increase the number of students who ate lunch in the district during the last school year.