Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Tablecloths, Local Foods, Eating with Teachers

Publications \ The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener \ Fall 2007 \ Editorials \ Amanda Beal

School Lunch Can Be Enjoyable and Educational

by Amanda Beal, MOFGA president

My sister, a teacher, is in Tokyo as part of a summer exchange program. Almost daily, she sends me e-mails about her experiences. Here’s my favorite so far:
"Oh - I love school lunch! Who knew school lunch could be good? Lunch arrives at each homeroom on a cart, the kids put desks together in groups of 6, and cover them with a tablecloth. Music plays across the intercom system, there is a moment of silence before the meal and a bow (the same after lunch). Yesterday it was soba noodles with a yummy sauce, oranges, a potato and milk. The day before it was rice, vegetables and beef, milk, cantaloupe and bean sprouts! It's all cooked right here at the school – why can't school lunch be like this back home?"
I spend a lot of time in schools as part of my work in a community health program, and I know many food service directors in Maine who are working hard to improve school lunch offerings–cooking with whole grains, adding salad bars and buying from local farmers. Many others wish they could change their programs, but are limited by a lack of resources – kitchens, designed only to heat and serve, containing no actual cooking equipment; little or no money in the school and municipal budget for the school lunch program; an expectation to run as a self-sufficient business; and an overall climate where lunchtime is seen as a break from, instead of part of, the educational activities of the day.  

I also learned recently about the school lunch program in Rome, Italy:  Students eat off porcelain plates at tables covered with tablecloths, as teachers sit with them (instead of hovering over them) and engage them in conversation, helping to practice their table etiquette and communication skills. The commitment to serving locally produced food is so strong that the government of Rome recently legislated that certain foods travel no more than three days from field to lunch plate. Rome invests millions of dollars in the school lunch program itself.  (See

Maine’s Department of Education has asked that on September 26, 2007, all schools participate in a Maine Harvest Lunch (MHL), featuring food from local farmers in their nutrition program. This is particularly exciting for me, as I’ve been part of the team that created and has kept the MHL going strong in Gorham Schools for the past several years. We’ve organized many resources around this program, including curricula for grades K-8 (posted on the Maine School Food Service Association Web site,, to help other schools and communities put on their own events.

State support and acknowledgement of the importance of feeding kids fresh, local food in schools is an important step, but I think the Tokyo and Rome examples also illuminate the need to look at the environment we create for students around this daily meal. Is mass herding hundreds of kids through a line and expecting them to consume their lunch in minutes really the way we want to condition their relationship to food in our culture? Day in and day out, this is the experience that our young people get in a setting that is dedicated to education. Imagine if schools held a “slow” local lunch, where students ate in their classrooms, enjoying a normally paced meal of food that they helped serve and possibly even prepare. More work? Undoubtedly.  Is it worth the extra effort to teach Maine’s kids healthy eating habits? I’d say, definitely.

The Maine Harvest Lunch program was developed in 2002 by the Gorham School Nutrition Program, Cumberland County Soil and Water Conservation District, People’s Regional Opportunity Program (PROP)  Communities Promoting Health Coalition (A Healthy Maine Partnership), and Farm Fresh Connection. For more information or to request a CD of MHL resources, contact Amanda Beal at PROP, (207) 874-1140 or