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Tri-district food director focused on improving nutrition for Valley students

FORT KENT, Maine — The food service director for three Valley school districts is bringing changes to the school lunch program and adding a new nutrition program to serve food insecure students.

Melanie Lagasse was hired as the food service director for the Valley Unified Regional districts of MSAD 33, MSAD 27 and the Madawaska School Department in July. She has upgraded the schools’ lunch menus to include food options such as yogurt parfaits and sunbutter sandwiches for students who prefer not to eat the prepared entree of the day.

“This is what happened — they have three options for lunch. They have a main entree every day, then they have an alternate lunch — one is sunbutter with jelly or fluff and alternate lunch two is every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, they will have yogurt and graham crackers,” Lagasse said.

Sunbutter is not peanut butter but made out of sunflower seeds instead to protect students who may have dangerous peanut allergies, she said.

The school lunch menus this year offer a wide variety of entrees including pate chinois (the Acadian version of shepherd’s pie), baked chop suey, a chicken and mashed potato bowl and baked lemon pepper fish with sweet potatoes. Standards such as chicken nuggets also make the menu, but with side dishes such as sweet potato fries and roasted garbanzo beans. A hot hamburg entree is accompanied by cauliflower and cherry tomatoes.

“My menus do not start repeating until the second week of November,” Lagasse said. “I look at our inventory and I look to give the kids a variety of things.”

Lagasse also has expanded the salad bars at the schools which Fort Kent Community High School seniors Manny Pettengill, Reese Pelletier and Camden Jandreau said they appreciate.

“In my opinion, as far as school lunches go, we have a very good one. We have an amazing salad bar with fresh fruits and vegetables, and either ham or chicken to go with the salad,” Pettengill said. “We have yogurt offered most days as well.”

Pelletier said the salad bar is his favorite part of school lunch.

“The salad bar used to be lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. Now we have two bars full of stuff; it’s awesome,” he said.

“I used to never get salads before; now I literally get a salad every day,” Jandreau added.

Lagasse said she is aware that not everyone is going to be happy with the lunch menus she prepares, but she does so following federal guidelines and with the students’ nutrition at heart.

“I know that for a lot of the kids, the school lunch program, the school lunch meal is their best meal of the day, so I try to make it as healthy for them as possible,” she said. “The only thing I ever ask of the kids is that they be nice to the ladies in the cafeteria. Just be nice to them.”

Lagasse also will soon be adding a new yogurt bar option for the tri-district students with grant money she received from ‘Fuel Up to Play 60’, a healthy eating initiative which the National Dairy Council sponsors .

She said the yogurt bar will be in place sometime around the districts’ harvest break which begins on Sept. 24.

Lagasse also will be implementing in all schools a Take Home program she developed in 2014 while working as food service director for the New Sweden Consolidated School. The program, for which Lagasse volunteers her time, involves her filling backpacks with food items — two breakfast items, two lunch items, two fruits and two vegetables which children can bring home for free each week.

“No child should have to worry about where the next meal is coming from; they should be able to be children,” Lagasse said of why she developed the backpack program.

Lagasse explained how she came up with the idea for the Take Home program.

“What happened is I had a family that I was feeding every day at the school and those kids, they were hoarding foods in their pockets everyday. I went to a workshop and heard somebody talk about a backpack program, how they fill backpacks with pencils and other school supplies and I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God. Why are we not sending food home for food insecure families?’” Lagasse said.  

Lagasse began writing to business organizations, such as L.L. Bean who supplied her with the backpacks she needed and wrote grants to provide the food to place in them.

“I’m getting about $2,000 a year for food,” she said.

Lagasse continues to work on the program, which now includes schools in New Sweden, Woodland, Westmanland, Stockholm, Perham, Sinclair, Cross Lake, St. Agatha and Frenchville, and plans to expand the program to the Fort Kent and Madawaska schools around harvest break.

Lagasse contacts parents of students who receive free and reduced lunches and if the parents provide permission, she enrolls the students in the Take Home program. She also receives referrals from teachers of other students who may benefit from the program.

“As long as I have parental permission, you’re in my program. I don’t have any guidelines,” Lagasse said.

She said the program provides some relief for food insecure students who often struggle to find food during weekends, holidays and other times when school is not in session and school lunch is therefore unavailable.

Lagasse recently wrote a grant and received 80 cases of french fries from McCain foods. She also purchases other frozen foods, and refrigerated items such as deli meats, which she provides to children in the Take Home program. Since she cannot place these perishable foods in the backpacks, Lagasse allows parents of children in the program to pick them up.

Lagasse welcomes food donations from businesses as well as monetary donations or gift cards to local grocery stores to help buy food. She also welcomes gently used backpacks to help with the Take Home program in the Valley.

To donate to the Take Home program or for more information, contact Melanie Lagasse at mlagasse@msad33.org

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