February 2, 2006
By Jennifer Anderson
Instead of a Hot Pocket or pizza bagel for breakfast, kids at Southeast Portland’s Abernethy Elementary School nowadays might have fresh-baked applesauce or pumpkin muffins — or if it’s Friday, pancakes or french toast made from scratch.
For lunch, Abernethy kids might have chicken tikka masala and chard pesto on rotini, instead of the pre-frozen burritos or chicken strips their peers are having across town.
It’s part of Portland Public Schools’ first made-from-scratch kitchen, a pilot program at Abernethy that is part of the school’s new focus on wellness. Abernethy, a primarily white school of 366 students, is in the Ladd’s Addition neighborhood.
“It’s interesting getting them used to bread pudding,” says Linda Colwell, a chef and parent volunteer who was hired by the district last summer to implement the scratch kitchen. “There are so many things they’re suspicious of. We find if we put syrup on it, it works.”
Funded by a mix of funds from the school district, donations and grants, Colwell and her team of chefs whip up 50 breakfasts and 200 lunches each day using local, seasonal ingredients.
It’s a far cry from how the district provides the meals at the other 86 public schools: buying food in bulk from a vendor and heating and serving it just before mealtime.
The scratch kitchen is one element of Abernethy’s new wellness focus; the other pieces are the school garden — called the Garden of Wonders — and a classroom in which students learn about cooking, nutrition and the cycle of how food gets from the farm to their school.
“It’s truly unique,” says Deborah Kane, vice president of the food and farm program at the Portland nonprofit Ecotrust, which is studying the Abernethy model. “It’s probably one of five in the country.”
Ecotrust is conducting a yearlong study of the scratch kitchen to see if and how elements of it could be replicated in other schools. They’re examining three areas: its cost-effectiveness; nutritional value compared to that of the standard school lunch; and student participation and food preferences.
The study will last through the school year, but Ecotrust will produce preliminary results this spring. Shannon Stemper, assistant director of the school district’s nutrition services, thinks the district can start replicating parts of it in other schools as early as next year.
“We could have a discussion about side dishes, fruits and vegetables and seasonal dishes at all schools next year,” she said, possibly in the form of a salad bar. “What we really need is funding partners. I think what we have here is a really strong focus option. It would evolve school by school.”
Garden grows momentum
Stemper said the total expense to the district for the program so far is hard to measure, but that’s what the Ecotrust study will determine.
The rest of the program at Abernethy relies on grants and donations Colwell has secured over the past few years, beginning when her two children attended Edwards Elementary in Southeast Portland.
As a chef, Colwell was interested in sustainable food sources and developing a food-based curriculum at a school. So she created the Garden of Wonders, funding it with $14,000 in grants from the Portland Schools Foundation and a few organizations with a focus on sustainable foods.
When the district consolidated Edwards last year and many students came to Abernethy, Colwell brought the Garden of Wonders over and was hired by the district to implement the scratch kitchen there.
The school then secured $6,000 in community donations and a $60,000, 18-month grant for its wellness curriculum from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which gives grants to improve health care.
The school has used the funds to hire a wellness coordinator, fund the rest of the kitchen staff, equip their classroom and buy 90 pedometers for the third-grade class as they track the miles they walk around town.
The holistic focus on wellness “was something our new community could rally around,” said Principal Tammy Barron. “We feel very fortunate. We’ve worked hard in a combination of things to make it all happen.”
Lessons apply to everyone
The smell of fresh-baked bread in the kitchen isn’t the only sign of the new program at Abernethy. A huge mural made by students, with the help of a few artists, hangs in the hall and depicts the journey of food from the garden to their school. A map plotting the third-graders’ walking challenge charts their progress.
Upstairs, an AmeriCorps volunteer develops lessons about food that cut across curriculum. First-graders learning about insects will play a pollination game, and fifth-graders will compete in a garden design contest. Throughout the year, students will go on field trips to Hot Lips Pizza and Grand Central Bakery, both of which donate food to Abernethy through the “chefs’ collaborative” Colwell belongs to.
Parents — who got to sample some of the unique dishes at a recent PTA dinner — are thrilled with the program, hoping it sticks around.
“I have really picky kids,” says Dana Earlenbaugh, parent of two children at Abernethy. “They never ate hot lunch at school. Now at the scratch kitchen, I can get at least eight a month with you (pointing to 7-year-old daughter Mallory Clawson) — and my other son, who is the pickiest eater at home, almost every day.”