February 21, 2007
By Leslie Cole
Local farm produce served in elementary schools finds kids tasting … squash!
The sign of the revolution was pale gold, kissed with olive oil, and shaped like a smile. Two Fridays ago, along with turkey hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches, students at 58 Portland elementary schools nibbled half moons of oven-roasted winter squash. It was vine-ripened on a farm not 20 miles from their lunch tables, and cooked from scratch that morning in their schools' convection ovens.
"It's a simple oven roast with a little olive oil, salt and pepper," says Kristi Obbink, Portland Public Schools' nutrition services director. "We thought about adding butter and brown sugar, but we said, no, let's not do the obvious one. Let's not entice kids to try the squash just because it's sweet."
So began the district's "Harvest of the Month" program: Once a month, a local farmer hauls in a crop, school kitchen staff cook it up, and kids dig in.
The farm-school connection was forged in December when Ecotrust, a Portland nonprofit group, sent e-mails to 250 Oregon farmers asking who would be interested in selling produce directly to the state's largest school district. "We were overwhelmed with responses," says Deborah Kane, the group's vice president of food and farms.
One came from Vicki Hertel of Sun Gold Farm, whose family has been farming in Washington County for five generations. "We had a wonderful crop of winter squash last year," says Hertel, who delivered 2,200 pounds of Sweet Dumpling, Delicata and Acorn varieties to the school district early this month. "It was abundant. We had some left, and so we signed on."
So did four other farms to close out this school year, and more are waiting in the wings for next fall. On Harvest day in March, students can expect oven-roasted potatoes from Prairie Creek Farm in Joseph, which also supplies spuds to some of the city's top restaurants. April brings fresh spinach (Siri Produce, Oregon City), and May, local asparagus (Canby Asparagus Farm).
In June, weather permitting, school salad bars will be piled high with Oregon berries.
The cost of the locally grown side dishes, Obbink says, runs about 6 cents a serving, in line with the district's lunch budget, and she'll be watching to see if the cooking and prep time adds significantly to labor costs. The only new equipment required: a measuring cup and a set of measuring spoons for each of the 58 school kitchens.
The program marks an early step in the nutrition services department's plan to buy more locally grown or locally processed food for public school meals. And it's the first time in decades that the folks who run the schools' kitchens are cooking, in addition to slicing raw vegetables and fruit for the salad bars and heating meals processed off-site.
"It might be a little bit more extra work," said Sharon Webb, a food service worker at Rose City Park School, at a late January training day for district cafeteria staff. "But we're up for it. I'm glad that the farmers are getting involved. A lot of time we look at the products and we say, 'Where is this from?'"
"I really want to push it for the kids," said Ellen Hagen. She runs the cafeteria at Arleta Elementary in Southeast Portland and plans to walk the lunch room to encourage students to try the new foods on their trays. If they just take a bite, she says, they're more likely to eat a helping, especially if they get encouragement from home. "If parents will back us up, it's almost a given."
One food service staffer at the training, where the cafeteria workers met farmers, sliced squash and tasted the new recipes, said she would hand her kids samples as they waited in the lunch line. The district is starting the program in elementary and K-8 schools, Obbink says, because "we generally have a little more time to talk to the kids there."
A pilot program in its second year at Abernethy Elementary School in Southeast Portland, where all school meals are cooked from scratch, suggests that children are more likely to accept unfamiliar foods if they get encouragement from staff, and learn about them in the classroom. Harvest of the Month will continue next fall, when the district also hopes to offer locally grown or locally processed entrees at elementary and K-8 schools.