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The Oregonian
October 10, 2006
By Leslie Cole

A new menu for school lunch

The from-scratch project at Abernethy Elementary yields insights that will flavor the plans of the district

It's lunch-crunch time at Abernethy Elementary School cafeteria. Children scramble for seats at low tables, stab straws into milk cartons and nibble around crusts of their PB&J. A timeless lunchtime scene.

In the kitchen, though, are signs of a new frontier.

Kids load lunch trays with chicken drumsticks kissed with house-made barbecue sauce and baked in the oven that morning. They grab bowls of cauliflower bisque, or a pulled-pork sandwich. If mac 'n' cheese is on the day's menu, it's made with real bechamel sauce and looks a lot like what you'd find at the natural-foods-store deli down the street.

Out in the school garden, tomatoes are ripening, and limbs of the Italian plum tree sag with heavy fruit. Linda Colwell, the chef-turned-lunch-lady, sees tomato topping for pizzas, dried prunes for chicken tagine.

Welcome to Abernethy Cafe, where Colwell and her staff are trying to change the future of school food.

And they're not alone. School districts across the country are looking at how the food they serve might instill healthier habits and combat skyrocketing rates of overweight kids and obesity. Nearly 20 states now have farm-to-school programs, developing students who not only eat their veggies but also know how they're grown. Berkeley, Calif., has its Edible Schoolyard and a renegade lunch lady named Ann Cooper; Olympia has organic salad bars; New Orleans has a new charter school embracing "eco-gastronomy," a holistic curriculum based around food.

In Oregon, though funding is scarce, school gardens are taking root, nurtured by volunteers and grant money. The state's Department of Education just appointed a farm-to-school coordinator, and district food-service managers around the Portland area are trying to crack the code to buying more food locally.

And there's Abernethy, nestled at the edge of Ladd's Addition in Southeast Portland, where Colwell, with Portland Public Schools' blessing, is running a pilot program. They're seeing whether they can cook meals from scratch, at what cost and benefit, and trying to use a garden to teach health and ecology lessons.

Colwell, a Paris-trained chef and the driving force behind Edwards Elementary's Garden of Wonders, landed here last fall after her neighborhood school closed and merged with Abernethy.

In the beginning she dreamed of buying direct from Oregon farmers, creating menus centered on local products. But with 200 kids to feed, a litany of purchasing rules to conform to and $1 to spend per child per meal on food, she quickly scaled back her efforts to focus on scratch cooking, regardless of the source of ingredients.

It wasn't as simple as thinking up great recipes. Arcane buying rules require bidding on food months before it enters the kitchen. USDA nutrition requirements govern what, and how much, lands on every plate.

"I had to learn a whole new way of thinking about food," Colwell says, remembering workdays that started at 5:30 a.m. in the school kitchen and ended after dark, sending e-mails and plugging nutrition data into a computer.

Now, as the pilot enters its second year, she counts the lessons.

Change is possible, but slow.

Scratch cooking is expensive, though the food isn't.

One person can't do it all, and a healthy program needs both enthusiasm and staffing.

Kids like kid food, but with the right exposure and encouragement, they can surprise you and eat things you never dreamed they would.

Many ways to think about pizza Getting children to eat her reinvented hot lunches, she found, was a delicate dance of tweaking the familiar and introducing the unfamiliar.

"If you ask them what was their favorite thing on their menu, it would be pizza," says Principal Tammy Barron. "But there's lots of ways you can look at pizza. The sauce doesn't have a lot of sugar in it. There's still cheese, but not as much on it. And it had great big tomatoes on it (from the garden). And they just ate it up."

A few weeks ago on pizza day, when there were leeks in the sauce, and slices of zucchini on top, the kitchen sold 240 lunches, the most ever. Barron decided to extend the lunch period by five minutes to meet the demand.

Students learn about new foods they see in the cafeteria in the school's garden and the garden classroom, where they cycle through every two weeks to study a vegetable of the week, learn where crops grow in Oregon or do experiments related to food.

Last year, for instance, James Fowler, who was then Abernethy's kitchen-classroom liaison, showed students red-stemmed chard leaves and offered tastes. The students ran an experiment, testing sugar content of the leafy green before and after cooking. And when chard pesto pasta showed up at lunch one day, "It just flew off the salad bar," Fowler says.

In fact, on any given day, more Abernethy students buy hot lunch, and eat more of what's on their trays, than at other schools.

Lunch sales at Abernethy climbed by 3 percent last year, according to a cost/benefit analysis of the scratch kitchen by the Portland-based nonprofit Ecotrust. At a comparison school in the district, sales dropped by 3 percent. What's more, a plate study showed that more of the Abernethy lunch was eaten and less thrown away.

That's significant, says Nancy Becker, a registered dietitian and adjunct professor at Portland State University, who sits on Abernethy's advisory board. "Even if it had stayed the same, that would have been terrific. Children don't change their eating habits quickly. It takes a long time."

More important, she says, it challenges the idea that kids will only eat junk food or food that tastes like junk food. "This really shows that children will eat good food when it's put in front of them."

While it may modify eating habits, scratch cooking, Abernethy style, won't save the district any money.

Though food costs were lower in the scratch kitchen — 94 cents per meal at Abernethy versus 99 cents at a control school — labor costs were much higher, $2.58 compared with 68 cents at the control school, where heat-and-eat entrees are the norm.

Abernethy had three full-time staff in the kitchen last year, plus scores of volunteers, whose hours were tracked and valued for the analysis. The control school's kitchen runs on a staff of two. And no one close to Abernethy was surprised by the wide discrepancy in labor costs. "It takes more time to chop things than to zap something in the microwave," says Barron, Abernethy's principal. "It's labor-intensive to prepare everything from scratch."

As the pilot moves into its second year, the school trimmed its kitchen staff by one in hopes of bringing labor costs more in line with the district norm.

Not considered in Ecotrust's study was additional staffing to run the garden classroom, now paid for by grants and PTA money.

The real question: What are we willing to spend? Overall Abernethy's meals cost about twice as much to produce, $3.52 per scratch-cooked lunch compared with $1.67 at the control school.

The question to ask, though, says Deborah Kane, Ecotrust's vice president of food and farms, isn't why scratch-cooked food is so expensive, but why we are paying so little for lunch.

"I think we have to ask ourselves as a society, how do we value the food we feed our kids? If we value the health of our children, it's time to be talking about how much we are willing to pay for lunch at our schools. I would argue that $1.85 (what the district's elementary schoolers currently pay for lunch) is probably not enough to deliver the kind of food that we'd like to see our kids eating."

The biggest surprise to everyone, including Kristy Obbink, director of Portland Public Schools Nutrition Services Department, was that in terms of nutrients delivered by standard school-district hot lunch and the Abernethy food, the results were a wash.

Looking at nutrients alone misses the point, says Gail Whiting Feenstra, a food systems analyst at the University of California at Davis, who sits on Abernethy's advisory committee. "It's about creating healthy lifestyle and healthy eating habits. You can get (nutrients) in a tube. This is so much more than that. We want kids to know where their food comes from, to know the nature of the relationship between a healthy environment and the choices they make in a grocery store and the choices they make when they put food on their plates."

Scratch cooking presents other thorny issues, such as risks associated with handling raw meat or peanut butter (because of allergies) at 85 schools.

Even so, Obbink says she intends to expand Abernethy's program, or parts of it, districtwide. The question remains how to pay for it.

With the school district strapped, the money for improving school food will have to come from elsewhere.

"I think we need to start looking at policy changes at the city, state and federal level," Ecotrust's Kane says. "Oregon is one of two states that does not contribute to the public school meal program. Why?"

The future: Small steps at more schools For now, Obbink wants smaller steps at all of the district's 85 schools, such as gardens where students can taste and touch what they grow. "Anything that's grown in a school garden, we are going to open up our cafeterias to serving."

She's pushing for closer ties with local farmers and food purveyors. This fall Obbink rolled out a Harvest of the Month program, finding local growers with surplus fruit or vegetables they can't sell on the normal market, to offer at bargain prices or donate to schools. In September, Hermiston farmer Sam Pollock dropped off watermelons, which were sliced and put out at salad bars across the district. This month, Obbink's expecting local onions.

A local bakery now makes breakfast muffins for the schools using Northwest marionberries and Shepherd's Grain flour, ground from Washington wheat.

Abernethy's recipes could even be used, Obbink suggests, by an outside manufacturer in the Portland area, to make hot entrees at a reasonable price for the entire district.

Colwell suggests other ideas, such as letting schools make their own house ranch dressing, from buttermilk and fresh herbs, and use their ovens not just for heating pizza, but to roast vegetables or bake squash. And anyone can take the standard-issue fruit salad and toss in a bag of frozen Oregon berries, she says.

It may help that increasingly, school food is no longer seen as the school district's problem. Others have discovered that what's good for the children also can be good for the community. Grants from the Injury Free Coalition for Kids at Oregon Health & Science University, Chefs Collaborative, Slow Food Portland and others are funding garden and health lessons at Abernethy and other schools. The Oregon Department of Agriculture and Ecotrust are matchmaking between farmers and school district food-service managers. A few Portland city commissioners are closely watching the issue.

Meanwhile, back at Abernethy, Colwell will keep cooking from scratch and looking forward. What her style of hot lunch does best, she says, "is create a really healthy environment for a conversation to continue."

Leslie Cole: 503-294-4069; lesliecole@news.oregonian.com

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