Students file through the lunch line at Hermon Middle School’s first Harvest Lunch, a meal with all Maine-sourced foods, on Nov. 2, 2022. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Getting parents back into schools since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging. But the new principal at Hermon Middle School figured that inviting them into the building for a special lunch might work.

So, Zackary Freeman worked with the town school department’s food service staff on a meal made almost entirely of Maine-grown foods. The first Harvest Lunch was held Wednesday with a menu that included corn chowder, grilled cheese sandwiches, yogurt parfaits with granola, a salad, blueberry cobbler, apples and apple cider.

Freeman, who has been principal since the start of the school year, declared the event a success after the first group finished up lunch and headed back to class. Parents were happy to be able to join their children and classmates.

Now, the principal wants to make the lunch an annual event.

Corey and Chelsea Shields joined 10-year-old River Shields for lunch. Younger brother Crew, who is 3, came along.

“This is a nice way to get families together with the kids,” Chelsea Shields, 34, said while she helped Crew get settled at the lunch table in the gymnasium.

Corey Shields, 37, said he enjoyed seeing how the lunch program works, and being back at his son’s school after the pandemic curtailed events like these.

River, a fifth grader at the school that serves grades 5 through 8, gave the Harvest Lunch a thumbs up as he took another bite of his grilled cheese sandwich on Maine-made bread.

The all-Maine menu fed 225 of the 329 students at the middle school, 111 parents and other family members, and 29 staff members. Parents and family members paid $5 each for the meal, and Freeman bought lunch for school staff members.

“The kids come away from this with a sense of family,” he said. “It also helps them learn where their food comes from.”

Jessica Thompson, the director of food services for the Hermon School Department, turned to her suppliers for help in using as many Maine-made products as possible. The potatoes in the chowder came from Caribou, the apples were grown in Newport, the cider was pressed in Hermon, the granola was made in Hiram and the blueberries were harvested in Washington County. All the ingredients in the salad were grown in Maine, and the milk served to the children and used in the chowder came from Maine dairy cows, she said.

One of the daily challenges of feeding students and staff at Hermon Middle School is that the building, located on Billings Road, doesn’t have its own kitchen.

Thompson and her staff cook at the high school, load the food into a van and drive to the middle school. Once there, they unload the van, move the food to a steam table or “hot boxes” to keep it warm, and set out trays, utensils, milk and condiments.

Thompson and her staff are preparing meals for more students than they did before the COVID pandemic, as Maine was one of a few states to extend a program started during the pandemic that has provided free lunch to all students, regardless of income.

Federal money for the program ended this fall but lawmakers in Augusta decided to continue offering free lunches to all students. Maine officials have estimated that schools across the state provided 3 million more meals last year than in 2020.

Thompson has found that to be true in Hermon, where schools served 400 to 450 lunches per day before the free lunch program.

“We are feeding 650 to 700 kids a day at lunch districtwide,” she said. “That’s a lot more than we were feeding before it was free for all students.”

On Wednesday, Tony Avila, a Hermon firefighter, took some time off from the fire station to have lunch with his fifth-grade son Alex Avila, 11.

“It’s pretty cool for him to come down here to visit,” Alex said between bites.

Avila, 47, said the lunch allowed him to have some “special time” during the day with his son.

“It’s nice just to sit here and be with them,” the firefighter said, gesturing to the families in the room.

Freeman was pleased with last Wednesday’s Harvest Lunch.

“All I am seeing is smiling faces and that’s all I wanted,” he said.