CLINTON, Maine — The challenge: create school meals using Maine apples in a breakfast recipe and Maine dried black beans as part of a lunch recipe.

Three elementary school teams competed at the Maine Department of Education Child Nutrition Office-sponsored 2019 Farm-to-School Cook-Off finals, held April 23 at the Kennebec Valley Community College Alfond Campus.

To qualify, the three finalist teams had to place first at one of three regional competitions, (Lake Region, Bath Region or Eastern Maine Region), explained Stephanie Stambach, chief nutrition consultant for the Maine Department of Education.

Each team included an elementary school student and a school nutrition staff member, Stambach said. The three team finalists represented South Portland, RSU 12 (Chelsea Elementary), and Cherryfield. Each team had to create a breakfast and lunch incorporating the Maine-grown ingredients.

Apples were donated by Ricker Hill Orchards of Turner, and dried black beans were donated by Fairwinds Farm of Bowdoinham, Stambach said.

To ensure that each team had access to the kitchen equipment needed to prepare meals, two teams made breakfast, while the third team made a lunch during the morning portion of the competition, and for the afternoon, one team prepared a breakfast and the other two teams created lunch recipes, Stambach said.

Paige Clark, a sixth grader, and Stacy Boudreau, a member of school nutrition staff at RSU 12-Chelsea Elementary, won the competition.

“Their breakfast meal consisted of breakfast pizza made with local pizza dough and local sausage,” Stambach said. “They also made a tropical smoothie and a breakfast beetle bug with Maine apples. For lunch, they made a creamy chicken taco soup with Maine black beans. This was paired with a green salad made with greens that were grown in the aquaponics program at Whitefield Elementary School (another RSU 12 school). For the fruit component, they made a strawberry banana cup mixed with vanilla pudding and crushed graham crackers, as more of a dessert.”

Blair Currier, director of nutrition for Yarmouth Public Schools; Samantha Gasbarro, a chef and nutritionist and the former chef and nutrition coordinator for the RSU 14 Windham/Raymond School District; and Chris McConnell, a first-year culinary arts student at the Somerset Career & Technical Center, Skowhegan, served as judges for the finals.

While the judges scored dishes on creativity, taste, feasibility for the recipe to be used in a school meal program and on presentation, each judge evaluated the teams based on food safety and time management as well as on preparation, cooking and cleanup techniques.

“When I look at creativity, I look at how they use food ingredients that you see every day in a new combination, which gets kids excited,” Currier said, adding that his district compared to other districts uses a fair amount of locally produced food products for student meals. “We use local beef hot dogs, fruits and veggies, and we recently did a student taste test of local carrots versus California carrots.”

As a chef, Gasbarro evaluated team members’ knife and other preparation skills. To be efficient, chefs need to hone organizational skills and also be constantly aware of school food sanitation procedures.

“I spent the last five years as a chef for a district in Maine,” Gasbarro said. “In that district, we moved almost entirely to scratch cooking. I look a lot at sanitation. That’s really important in what we do and in maintaining that in the kitchen — are they wearing gloves, things like that. There’s no difference between school food and real food, and that barrier needs to be broken down.”

McConnell, who was named the 2019 SCTC Student of the Year four days after the competition, said he was asked by the director of nutrition at SCTC to serve as a judge. Presentation, he said, is an important element in any meal, especially meals prepared for young people.

“It’s a wonderful way to get school students involved in the real world kind of things,” McConnell said. “I look for two things. I think that presentation and the creativity of a dish is almost everything. If one dish does not taste as well as another, but it looks better, I personally think that a lot of people would go for that dish. Food safety is also very important.”

Josh and Amanda Clark, the parents of 12-year-old Paige, said she enjoys cooking at home. In part, Paige’s love of cooking comes from her grandmother, as they often bake together, Amanda said.

“I love to make pies, pastries and cookies,” Paige said. “I love spending time with my grandma. I think I might like to start my own (food) business when I’m older.”

For more information on the annual Farm to School Cook-Off Competition, visit https://www.maine.gov/doe/schools/nutrition/programs/localfoods.

Jeffrey B. Roth is a freelance writer in Maine.