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School cafeterias get healthy makeover

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - A student enjoys a strawberry during lunch at Oliver Lent Elementary School in Southeast Portland.Move over, corn dogs and Tater Tots. 

Make way for winter squash, grass-fed beef and antibiotic-free chicken.

If your kids eat school lunch at Portland Public Schools these days, they might be eating better than you. 

Whether you realize it or not, a number of farm-to-school initiatives have been creeping their way onto Junior’s lunch tray.  

First there was the initiative to buy locally raised and sourced products: everything from Alpenrose milk to two-day-fresh Unger Farms strawberries. Nearly a third of all Portland Public School cafeteria foods are now sourced locally. 

Then came Harvest of the Month seven years ago, an effort to celebrate a local fruit or veggie, educate kids about it, and promote it on the menu. 

Three years ago, PPS Nutrition Services (which operates on a $17 million annual budget, separate from the school district’s general fund) ditched what they call the “carnival” food: corn dogs, french fries, Tater Tots, ranch dressing and cookies.

And thanks to the state’s farm-to-school bill and partnerships with organizations like Growing Gardens, school gardens have been sprouting up everywhere — they are now at 52 out of 80 schools districtwide. 

Now meat is getting a makeover, too. 

A new Oregon Department of Education grant allows PPS to continue efforts to fund “center-of-the-plate” proteins for school lunch, in the form of grass-fed beef and “real” chicken — whole, unprocessed meat that is cooked from raw on-site. 

That’s a huge change from the spongy, chopped and formed “mystery meat” of yesteryear.

Think oven-barbecued Draper Valley chicken (served a few times last year) and juicy hamburgers from Carman Ranch beef (on the menu for Oct. 24, the third-annual Food Day, a national event). Those would earn props from any serious Portland foodie. 

The new state grant of $215,624 to PPS was part of $1.2 million awarded statewide. It’s being used to pay for the beef and chicken, as well as fresh fruit, veggies, herbs, and a new low-sodium, low-sugar catsup. 

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland Public Schools nutrition director Gitta Grether-Sweeney checks out the healthy offerings at Oliver Lent Elementary School.“Our job is to help them be nourished and ready to learn,” says Gitta Grether-Sweeney, director of PPS Nutrition Services, who’s been transforming school lunches here since her arrival 10 years ago. “We’re really trying to be school food 2.0.” 

Going Burgerville

The grant funds also will be used to send all 85 district cafeteria workers on a field trip to an Oregon food processor and farm next summer. 

The goal, Grether-Sweeney says, is to increase buy-in from kitchen staff so they can better promote the food they’re cooking and serving to students, parents, teachers and staff. 

Focusing on front-line staff has been an effective tactic for Burgerville, a recent Portland State University case study found. Whether it’s Walla Walla sweet onions or humanely raised, antibiotic-free beef and bacon from Niman Ranch, the local chain relies on storytelling about local foods and the farmers or producers behind them. 

PPS will now “go Burgerville,” and adopt the same strategy to help employees connect with their customers: those picky but often adventurous school kids. 

“If we just put these things on the trays in the cafeteria, they will end up in the trash can,” says Shannon Stember, assistant director of nutrition services. “Our goal is to connect garden to classroom to cafeteria, and to have students seeing and hearing that they’re connected.”

Yum ... Brussels sprouts

There’s plenty of evidence that storytelling will help sell unfamiliar foods to kids. 

Just take school gardens, where kids have a hand in growing and harvesting the food they put on their plates. 

Lent School’s garden is ripe for harvesting this month, and will feature a bounty of orange, green and white winter squash. 

“I have found that when students are connected to growing healthy food, then they are much more receptive to consuming it when they see it in the cafeteria,” says Jesse Hunter, a third-grade Spanish immersion teacher who also is the garden coordinator. “Kids love the fresh garden salad with a mix of garden greens. Some have even told me that it tastes so good that they’d rather not put dressing on it.”

The garden is especially critical for the Lent population, Hunter says, because so many lack access to fresh produce at home. Currently 93 percent of the students are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches, compared to the district average of 71 percent. 

“I’ve been amazed at how teaching kids about the importance of eating healthy foods at this age can affect their palates,” Hunter says. “I’ve heard of students enjoying foods such as Brussels sprouts that I would never have thought they would have found appealing.”

It was Hunter who sought out Growing Gardens, a Northeast Portland nonprofit, to help get the Lent school garden up and running three years ago. Growing Gardens provided technical support and volunteer training, and runs an after-school and summertime gardening club for students. 

Hunter had received his school garden certification from Growing Gardens, a fairly new type of program that’s attracting educators from across the country. The program graduated 200 people in the past four years. 

Caitlin Blethen, manager of Growing Gardens’ “Youth Grow” program, says the aim is to empower communities to own their own gardens by cultivating volunteer leaders as well as fresh produce.

Forget the sack lunches 

One day in September, 600 Lent students filed in for lunch during two 45-minute periods. Nearly everyone here eats school lunch rather than a sack lunch.

At other schools, participation is much lower. Districtwide, the number of students eating school lunches dipped about 4 percent last year, following a national trend.

Grether-Sweeney and Stember think that might be due to slower lines at some schools — a result of the new federal mandates for students to choose three fruits and vegetables.

On this day, the hot menu entree was fish sticks — Alaskan pollock, not mush — alongside fresh, locally grown potato wedges that were cut, washed, roasted and lightly seasoned with salt, pepper, rosemary and olive oil, prepared on site.

Most students helped themselves to servings of fish sticks and potatoes, but a few opted for one of the cold entrees on the menu: kindergartner-friendly peanut butter “Uncrustables” sandwiches, and a tall yogurt parfait, made with Bob’s Red Mill granola and Auburn, Wash.-based Yami Yogurt. 

According to the new federal school lunch guidelines, students are being trained to reserve half their plate — two squares of their tray — for the salad bar items.  

Every student helped themselves to scoops of coleslaw and green salad, grabbed some carrots or peppers and held their plate out for a large handful of ripe strawberries before finding their place to eat.

Stember knows food choices are complex, and she doesn’t expect people to run home and start buying organic. She sees healthy food lunches as an equity issue, like Outdoor School. “Some kids would have that experience anyway,” she says, “but doing it in a school setting provides it to everyone.”