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Caribou area school food service director receives national award

CARIBOU, Maine — For the past 29 years, Louise Dean has worked hard to ensure students in Caribou area schools are fed. After nearly three decades, the School Nutrition Association is recognizing Dean for her efforts with the 2018 Northeast Regional Director of the Year award.

SNA President Lynn Harvey stated in a May 2 press release that Dean “brings her whole heart into her job,” ensuring that “each child in her district has access to healthy, balanced, and appetizing school meal options.”

The SNA will honor Dean during its Annual National Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, this July.

Dean, who was born in Southern California in 1953, said she is excited to once again travel to the West Coast and see her family.

The food service director said she unexpectedly learned about the award during April break.

“I stopped in my office during vacation to make sure I had all my food orders done,” she said. “I was only there for a few minutes and my phone rang. I was shocked, because everyone was gone for break, and when I picked up the phone I was told that I won the regional director of the year.”

Dean was at a loss for words.

“And that’s a lot for me because I love to talk,” she said on May 11. “Tears came to my eyes, as they are now.”

While her job consists of a great deal of paperwork, ensuring several kitchens are up to code, writing grants, and dealing with officials on a local, state, and even federal level, Dean consistently prioritizes children’s health above everything else.

The spark that ignited her passion for food service began shortly after she moved from California to Minnesota and worked at a nursing home.

“I worked as a dishwasher and was promoted to head cook in four months,” she said. “My boss told me to take a night class to further myself, and once I graduated she said I have to find another job because she’s not going to let me take hers.”

Dean soon found herself in Maine and, in 1989, she became Caribou’s first food service director.

“It’s been quite a learning experience,” she said of her nearly 30 years of working in Caribou area schools.

During that time, she has served as the president of both the Maine School Food Service Association and the Maine Dietary Manager’s Association. She also recently helped bring CEP (Community Eligibility Provision) to Caribou, a program that allows all kids to eat for free, regardless of their status in qualifying for free or reduced price lunches, something she said she gets “goosebumps” just thinking about.

Throughout her career, Dean has traveled to Washington, D.C., and spoken to the Maine Legislature several times, and said she doesn’t understand how lawmakers are often unable to see the importance in feeding children.

RSU 39 Superintendent Tim Doak hugs Food Service Director Louise Dean after congratulating her for winning a regional award and announcing her Oct. 31 retirement during a May 2 school board meeting. (Christopher Bouchard)

“They’re so afraid that a rich kid is going to get a free meal,” she said. “I wish they would come to the schools, not just for one day in their whole career, but really come to schools and talk to the kids. There are poor children across the nation who need to be fed.”

Even though Caribou was not part of an RSU with Limestone and Stockholm in 1989, Dean said she was helping with outside schools before the merger.

“I was helping Limestone with food service before they became part of the RSU,” Dean said. “I also worked with [the Maine School for Science and Mathematics] for their first two years. Really, the RSU hasn’t change the amount of schools I work with, because I’ve always helped out.”

While she has served similar locations throughout her career, Dean said school lunches have seen significant changes over the years, such as Michelle Obama’s push for healthier school lunches.

“My only take on that is that they changed too much at once,” Dean said, “and it was very hard for students to acclimate to that. If they changed one thing a time, it would have been fine. You would see in the news across the country that kids and parents were protesting the changes.”

“But,” she continued, “there are scientific reasons for having whole grains. In Maine, we didn’t have any fried foods. Our french fries were baked, and our vegetables are steamed. We did increase the amount of fruits and vegetables offered, and now students have to take a half cup of fruits and vegetables with both breakfast and lunch.”

In fact, Dean said the top three offerings in the kitchen incorporate whole grains.

“The top food is chicken nuggets,” she said. “The second is our bosco sticks, which are whole grain bread sticks filled with cheese. Then third is the pizza, which uses whole grain dough. The chicken nugget coating, and even our mac and cheese, is whole grain.”

She said the pizza is listed is “WG Pizza” on the menu, and that while the WG stands for “whole grain,” many students have instead started referring to the meal as “Wicked Good Pizza.”

RSU 39 Superintendent Tim Doak also congratulated Dean for her receipt of the award during a May 2 school board meeting, telling other board members that the district has “been blessed” for having her on board.

“She’s planning on retiring on Oct. 1,” Doak said, “and it is going to be a huge loss for RSU 39, Aroostook County, and the State of Maine. I think Louise is the best food service director we’ve had since I’ve been here, and now the state and region agree with me.”

Dean, likewise, said Doak is the “best boss I’ve ever had,” that he’s always open to having a dialogue, and that, like her, he aims to put student well-being above all else.

Shortly after Doak began working as RSU 39’s Superintendent in late 2015, Dean said she pitched the idea of introducing breakfast in school classrooms.

“Our school breakfast program starts at 7:45,” she said, “and students have the choice between going outside and playing with their friends or going in and eating breakfast. For many students, play comes first, so they go to class hungry and then they can’t learn.”

Dean gave Doak some literature on the topic of breakfast in the classroom shortly after he was hired, and said he was immediately receptive to the idea.

“I saw him a couple days later and asked him if he’d read it,” she said, “and he said, ‘Yes, let’s make this happen.’”

Dean said she’s always had support from the entire administration, adding that Doak “is truly all about the kids, and that’s what I love about him.”

With CEP, breakfast in the classroom, and now recognition on a national scale, Dean said she feels much better about retiring later this year.

“I only have 67 more work days,” she said on May 11, adding that she is confident the Superintendent will “ensure whoever they hire [afterward] has integrity and understands what the job is about.”

Her plans for retirement include living life in a more simple way, enjoying local restaurants, and visiting the new PreK-8 school in Caribou that she helped plan.

For the next food service director, Dean’s advice is to simply remember that it’s all about helping kids.

“The bottom line is feeding kids,” she said. “We have a lot of rules, paperwork, and regulations, but remember that this is about doing your best to make sure they’re fed.”

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