October 14, 2008
By Leslie Cole
Mention school lunches, and it's hard to find someone who's not hungry for change.
Maybe you can't see, smell or taste it just yet, but the shape of public school meals is shifting, in the Portland area and beyond.
Food costs are climbing, money is tight and results that resonate with families across the state will take time. But right now, the future of the school cafeteria looks promising.
• Two years after a splashy pilot program of scratch cooking and gardening began at Abernethy Elementary in Southeast Portland, Oregon has new positions in two state agencies dedicated to what's known as "farm-to-school."
Cory Schreiber in the Department of Agriculture and Joan Ottinger in the Department of Education are charged with connecting farmers with school cafeterias, encouraging students to eat more local fruits and vegetables, seeding a statewide school garden program and getting lessons about food into classrooms.
• Local purchasing has taken a big leap forward. More than 32 percent of Oregon schools buy some of their food for school lunches from farmers and processors in their communities, according to an Oregon Department of Agriculture survey. Recently relaxed rules in the 2008 federal farm act encourage more local purchasing. School districts that buy more than a certain dollar amount must get bids on food purchases. For many years, it was impossible to cite a preference for local products (meaning Washington, Oregon and Northern California) when soliciting bids. Last year, that restriction was removed.
Despite other hurdles — and there are many — school food service directors are buying fresh fruits and vegetables from nearby farmers when they can, with little or no additional federal or state money in their pockets.
A yearlong grant from the Kaiser Permanente Community Foundation has given enough oomph to two public school districts — Portland and Gervais — to put not just locally grown produce on lunch trays, but also monthly hot entrees in Portland schools using Oregon products.
The food that students grow end up in the cafeteria and could someday, school officials say, defray as much as 20 percent of the cafeteria's produce costs.
"We want to use it to demonstrate what could be possible statewide," says Deborah Kane, vice president of the food and farms program at Ecotrust, which supports farm-to-school activities around the West.
What's missing is permanent funding. Oregon is one of only a handful of states that does not provide money for public school meals. School districts need more resources, say a coalition of food and public health activists working on farm-to-school issues, to create programs that reach every student.
Farm-to-school supporters are gearing up to ask for it: State Reps. Tina Kotek (D-Portland) and Brian Clem (D-Salem) plan to introduce legislation in 2009 requesting that the state match a portion of the federal dollars if districts purchase Oregon foods. If the bill is enacted, the state would kick in as much as 15 cents for every lunch and 7 cents for every breakfast to purchase foods produced, packaged or processed in Oregon. The proposed legislation also would provide up to 150 grants for complementary food- and garden-based education, up to $10,000 a school year for each of two years.
Meanwhile, some Oregonians aren't waiting. School gardens are taking root in pockets around the state, helped along by community members, passionate teachers and parent volunteers. With grants and donations, a new culinary arts program is getting off the ground in the Centennial district, with the hope of introducing at-risk teens to a lifetime of more healthful eating.
Stay tuned. Meanwhile, sample a few stories of change, below.
Ecotrust (events, program overviews, assistance and legislative updates), www.ecotrust.org/farmtoschool
National Farm to School Program, www.farmtoschool.org
Portland Public Schools' Local Lunch program, www.nutrition.pps.k12.or.us/.docs/pg/10173
Growing Gardens' school garden resource page, www.growing-gardens.org (click on Resources, then School Gardens)
Bend/LaPine farm-to-school program, www.bend.k12.or.us (click on Parents, Nutrition, Menus, and Farm to School)
Centennial Learning Center, www.centennial.k12.or.us/schools/clc
Last week, Leslie Phillips encountered a problem like no other in her four years as a cafeteria assistant at Woodmere Elementary School: Where to get the manpower to shuck 300 ears of corn on the cob?
She found it in the busy hands of Barbara Cervantes' first- and second-graders.
Serving vegetables from a local farm requires flexibility and a little more effort from Phillips, who serves 350 lunches every day at this Southeast Portland school. But she's all for it.
"It's a great idea," she says. "It really introduces the kids to some brand new things. They might not like everything they get, but at least they know what it is."
This year, more is on the way.
With a $300,000 grant from the Kaiser Permanente Community Foundation at the Northwest Health Foundation, an amount equal to an extra 7 cents for every lunch served, Portland and Gervais public school districts are testing what local purchasing can do for the health of students and of local economies.
A Northwest-grown fruit or vegetable will be featured in the lunch line — and talked up by cafeteria staff — twice a month. Grocers such as Whole Foods and New Seasons will be promoting those same foods, to encourage parents to serve them at home.
Along with that, Portland plans to serve a locally sourced hot entree once a month. Next week, it's a quesadilla of Tillamook cheese on a Don Pancho tortilla; in November, students who buy hot lunch will find barbecued chicken from Draper Valley Farms. The effect of more local lunches will be studied, and farm-to-school advocates hope the results will help them find permanent funding to extend the program statewide.
A year of occasional meals with local products sounds like small potatoes compared to scratch cooking at every school cafeteria, a great-sounding solution that's fraught with complexities and expensive on a large scale.
Nor is it as efficient, or as cheap, as the status quo: Public schools typically buy federally subsidized commodities at rock-bottom prices from large suppliers and design menus around food that's heat-and-eat.
But given the dueling problems of rising obesity and skyrocketing food and labor costs, plus union rules and limited cooking and storage facilities, "local lunch" even once or twice a month is a step forward. And with this one-year grant, it's happening at every school in the state's largest district, not just a few, and being tested in small, rural schools as well.
"It would be a wonderful goal to serve grass-fed beef, sustainably grown products, hormone-free chicken every day," says Kristy Obbink, Portland Public Schools' director of nutrition services. "I probably won't see that in my school lunch lifetime. But hopefully we'll find products that are reasonably priced that can be incorporated every day. The goal is to serve kids nutritious food that they enjoy, that is safe and can be economically produced."
South of Portland in the farm community of Gervais, Eldridge Elementary sits smack in the middle of an orchard owned by Jones Farm Produce. "There are apples sitting there, and I'm thinking, 'Why aren't we buying from him?'" Clare Columbus, food service director, says.
That was last year. Now, Matt Jones is her champion, the "benevolent broker" who not only sells her apples at a fair price, but also finds other growers who can do the same with different crops. Another nearby farmer is planting lettuce in greenhouses for the school's salad bar this winter.
"They didn't understand," Columbus says, "that we serve so many meals" — about 900 a day, she estimates.
More of them do today, and Columbus uses a federal fruit and vegetable grant plus the Kaiser funds to buy as much as she can. Eighty percent of her 1,050 students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches under federal income guidelines. But regardless of income level, students and staff alike are eating more fruits and vegetables because they're right in front of them, five days a week. "If it's out there, you're going to take it."
Direct buying is tough in districts where money is tight — Portland, for instance, has about $1.10 a meal to spend on food — storage and distribution difficult, and because extra washing, trimming and peeling is often necessary.
Farms that sell to schools must carry product-liability insurance. At large districts such as Portland Public, any purchase more than $5,000 requires phone or written quotes from at least three vendors, and purchases of more than $25,000 require a bid process.
"A lot of farmers, they've got to sell their stuff, and they don't want to mess with the paperwork," Columbus says.
The benefits of local, farm-to-school advocates say, outweigh the hassles.
And districts that have money, flexibility, facilities and a bold person in charge are storming ahead.
A semi truck filled with fruit from Kimberly Orchards arrives once a week at Bend/LaPine public schools' warehouse, bringing apples, pears, peaches or plums grown near the north fork of the John Day River. Celery, broccoli, tomatoes and melon come in from Jeff Rosenblad's farm near Mount Angel, the only place willing to sell to district wellness coordinator Katrina Wiest when she started buying local five years ago.
Now Rosenblad grows more acres of food because of his deal with the schools.
Wiest has fresh fruit and vegetables on the menu daily, and she keeps pushing for more; last month she bought 10,000 pounds of natural beef from Painted Hills Ranch.
"I said, 'How much can you give me at a price I can afford?' We made a deal."
She's picking out seeds this winter with farmer Jim Bahrenburg to grow specifically for her school district.
It's easier to buy direct than some would believe, she says. "Many farmers say, 'You're not in session when we have product.' That's not true. We have summer lunch programs." School is in session in September, during peak harvest, Wiest says. Even a few hours' drive over the Cascades isn't a deal-breaker, she says. "If you drop a whole truckload of produce at one shot, it's well worth their while."
As for the students, Wiest says she knows their diets are better, although she doesn't have hard data.
"My data is I'm not having fruit come back (on the plates). It's being eaten."
Rick George has known for years that kids learn in a garden. They learn to compute the diameter and radius of a sunflower, measure cubic feet of rock in a raised bed, and understand weather and photosynthesis in a way no textbook can teach, says the seventh-grade teacher at Seven Oak Middle School in Lebanon.
Now, after planting vegetables this spring in the school garden he started six years ago, he knows that 10 raised beds can feed an army.
A bumper crop of lettuce fed children participating in the school-sponsored free summer lunch program. Cucumbers, broccoli and carrots stoke the middle school's salad bar.
"A huge amount" of tomatoes kept on coming until the end of September, says Pam Lessley, the district's nutrition services director for this community of 10,000. "Anything that's extra goes out to seven other schools in the district," and also to the senior center and some of the soup kitchens in town.
The vegetable growing venture could eventually save her 10 to 20 percent in produce costs, Lessley says, more when hoop houses are up and they can grow produce in winter. Twenty percent is significant, considering how vegetable prices spike every year. "It's such a volatile commodity," Lessley says.
George's garden, helped along by grant money he secured for greenhouses and other material expenses, is just the beginning. Greenhouses eventually will grow not just starts, but winter crops. They want an irrigation system, and a fruit orchard. "We have enough acreage for about 100 trees," Lessley says. "The kids will learn grafting from a master gardener. We want to teach them to be self-sustaining in the future. They save a lot by growing their own."
The community is behind them. Two master gardeners come each week to volunteer. Last spring before starts went into the ground, Rod Volbeda, a local dairyman, donated manure as a soil amendment. Bi-Mart donated plants, and lots of local businesses have offered discounts or donated materials, George says.
To succeed, they also need help in the cafeteria. It takes more work to prepare a carrot just pulled from the ground than pre-cut, washed and bagged veggies off a truck. So before school started this fall, George invited the district's 30-plus cooks and assistant cooks to the garden. "I gave them a bag and said, 'Go pick.' They got beans, celery, flowers and cucumbers. We explained to them what we're doing, and we asked them to give a little bit, too."
As for the students who spend 30 to 40 minutes a day in the garden, growing food is gradually changing their eating habits, George says. "It's paying off for kids who are seeing this stuff grow. They're excited about eating it."
"Our No. 1 goal is to break the cycle of poverty eating our students have. Most of them have grown up eating fast food and many of them don't know how to cook." Jamie Juenemann Centennial Learning Center principal
Principal Jamie Juenemann thinks back to the not-so-long-ago moment when one of her students at Centennial Learning Center, in the middle of a cooking demonstration, pointed to a piece of raw chicken and asked, "What's that?"
She picked up the phone and called Cory Schreiber, the former Portland chef hired last year as the state Agriculture Department's farm-to-school liaison to help get more locally produced foods into Oregon schools.
"I said, 'Hey, do you need a school as a test site?'"
Juenemann's vision: Teach the 160 seventh- to 12th-graders at the Gresham alternative school to cook and healthier habits will follow.
"Our No. 1 goal is to break the cycle of poverty eating our students have," Juenemann says. "Most of them have grown up eating fast food and many of them don't know how to cook."
The only problem: The small east Portland school didn't have a kitchen. Chicken nuggets, turkey gravy and other lunches served in the renovated church that serves as its campus were trucked over from Gresham's Centennial High and heated on site.
So Juenemann got to work. She raised $10,000 for new sinks, refrigerators and a range hood, secured donations of a commercial-grade gas stove from Northwest Natural, and found a Portland firm, Hennebery Eddy Architects, to draw up plans. School district maintenance staff start construction this month. "People have stepped up from all over the place," she says.
With Schreiber's help and a bit of luck, students will be making salads, baked potatoes, pancakes, frittatas and chicken noodle soup in the school's new commercial kitchen in January. Art teacher and culinary school grad Conrad Schumacher will shift to teaching cooking, and students will be his staff, in charge of making breakfast and lunch for the school every day. As long as the from-scratch meals meet federal nutritional guidelines and come in under budget, Juenemann says, the district is all for it.
It helps that the school is small. And because close to 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, they've applied for and received state and federal grants to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables, and explore what it takes to include Oregon products in a school cafeteria system.
There are kinks to be worked out, of course. "We're really worried about delivery because of the price of gas," Juenemann says. "I think it will be groundbreaking to figure out how do we get the things that are local to us."
Schreiber is helping to line up local farms as suppliers. And he'll be watching to see what works at Centennial Learning Center, to inform changes at other schools in the district and across the state. That Juenemann and others are stepping up is a hopeful sign. "Oregon is empowered with a lot of people who want to do the work," Schreiber says.
Students will earn food-handler cards before stepping into the kitchen, and some of them might even find a future career as they feed their peers. More important, their principal says, is that they find healthier eating habits. "If they're not able to cook from scratch, they're really limiting their eating, and their future children's eating."
Leslie Cole: 503-294-4069; email@example.com