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Meal plan

(article, Anne Laufe)

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Just steps from the classroom, a dozen raised vegetable beds overflow with the bounty of the late-summer harvest. Round purple eggplants the size of softballs grow in one bed, while lemon cucumbers and kale flourish in another. Hand-painted signs announce additional crops: zucchini, watermelon, corn, tomatoes, and potatoes. Bees buzz, butterflies flutter, and a hummingbird zips by. 

Welcome to the Garden of Wonders in Portland, Oregon, part of the Abernethy Elementary School Scratch Kitchen pilot project, where kids plant, tend, harvest, and eat fruit and vegetables year-round. 

The Garden of Wonders — like Berkeley’s better-known Edible Schoolyard Program, started by Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters — is a vivid example of a grassroots movement spreading all across America. From Florida to New Hampshire, from Wisconsin to California, parents are demanding more nutritious school lunches for their kids, and school districts are beginning to respond by growing their own food, buying local and organic products, and turning lunchrooms into more attractive places to eat. 

Ever since the National School Lunch Act was signed into law by President Truman in 1946, enacting the National School Lunch Program, a hot lunch has been guaranteed for every schoolchild who can’t afford one. According to the USDA, in 2006 some 30 million students received a free or reduced-price lunch each school day. The federal government reimbursed districts with $2.47 for every lunch given away, and $2.07 for every lunch sold at a reduced price.

[%image watermelon float=left width=400 credit="Photo courtesy Anne Laufe" caption="A watermelon bed at Abernethy Elementary's Garden of Wonders."]

While the USDA governs the nutritional content of these midday meals, stipulating that each lunch contain approximately 600 calories and that no more than 30 percent of those calories come from fat, most school cafeterias — which rely on processed food and “kid-friendly” products like chicken nuggets — are barely meeting these requirements. Somehow, over the last 60 years, a hamburger, fries, a cup of Jell-O and eight ounces of chocolate milk have become the standard for a nutritionally acceptable lunch. And our national record of encouraging healthy lunches is poor; it was President Reagan, after all, who earned notoriety in the early 1980s for his attempt to reclassify ketchup as a vegetable.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, a series of unfortunate events coincided. Federal funding for school meals dipped. Fewer children were enrolling in public school, and even fewer of them were buying school lunch. And fast-food corporations began selling their wares in school cafeterias. Even as kids were learning in health class that a good diet is based on whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, in the lunchroom they were gobbling up slices of pepperoni pizza from Pizza Hut and Big Macs from McDonald’s.

Schools also began installing vending machines, which sold whopping 32-ounce sodas packed with high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors and colors, along with such wholesome snacks as barbecue potato chips and giant cookies. The companies providing these vending machines were welcomed with open arms, as financially strapped school districts stood to make millions of dollars in profits from exclusive signing contracts. 

Now, however, the junk-food wave is beginning to recede. According to the National Institutes of Health, one-third of American children between the ages of six and 18 are overweight, and nearly 15 percent are considered obese. Diabetes rates in children are rising and the American Diabetes Association predicts that, if the trend continues, more than a third of today’s kids will develop diabetes in their lifetimes. In light of these health concerns, the federal government now requires all schools to have a Wellness Plan with goals for nutrition education and physical education. And parents are beginning to question exactly what their kids are being served in school. 

Dan Marks, a pediatric endocrinologist and researcher at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, agrees that school-lunch reform is finally getting the attention it deserves. “There really is a sort of groundswell right now. There are efforts going on all over the place, with big successes in Oregon and California,” he says. “In many ways, this is similar to the way smoking was in the 1950s. It wasn’t some giant national decree \[that reduced smoking\]. It was death by a thousand knife cuts.”

The movement to improve school lunches isn’t restricted to the United States. In 2005, after celebrity chef Jamie Oliver blasted English schools for spending as little as 75 cents on each child’s noon meal, the government responded by pouring more money into school-lunch programs and establishing stricter guidelines. 

In France, vending machines were banned from schools in 2005. Schools there spend an estimated $8 a day on each student meal, with lunch consisting of adult foods served in smaller portions. Students regularly dine on grilled fish, pasta, cheese, and fruit, with the occasional fresh-baked dessert. 

A recent analysis of the “All for Quality” lunch and snack program implemented in Rome, Italy, in 2002 illustrates how, for about $5 a day per child, schools there are now providing students with scratch-cooked meals using 70 percent organic ingredients. The rest of the products are either local, regional, or fairly traded. 

[%image promo-image float=left width=350 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/Maica" caption="The American school lunch is undergoing changes."]

In the school district for Portland, Oregon, most of the public schools serving kindergarten through eighth grade have only heat-and-serve facilities rather than full kitchens. This has been the trend in the U.S. since the mid-1980s, when President Reagan cut the school-lunch budget by $1.5 billion and ended grants for replacing kitchen equipment, forcing schools to abandon food preparation. Almost all meals in the nation’s public schools now are made off-site, often by commercial entities, and simply distributed at the schools. 

Abernethy Elementary School is a rare exception, the site of a pilot project for the Portland district’s Nutrition Services Department. Abernethy is equipped with a real kitchen, a chef, a learning garden (the aforementioned Garden of Wonders), and an integrated curriculum designed to teach kids nutritious eating habits. 

With the blessings of the Abernethy principal and the head of Nutrition Services, chef and parent Linda Colwell started the scratch kitchen in the fall of 2005. Colwell got a classroom dedicated to the food program, where kids learn the history and nutritional qualities of the products they plant, study food science, and actually prepare and sample food. She procured a six-burner commercial range and a 30-quart mixer so that the kitchen staff, with the help of volunteers and students, could prepare meals on-site every day. And she helped establish the Garden of Wonders, so that students could witness firsthand the connection between the earth and what they were eating. 

Lettuce and tomatoes that the kids planted became part of the salad bar; herbs from the garden went into the dressing. Students dried apples from one of the fruit trees and served these in the classroom. Although the kids grew only a tiny portion of all the food that was served in the cafeteria, Colwell considers the garden an integral part of the program. “Gardens are never a solution,” she says. “They’re an education.” 

An analysis of the first year of the program, conducted by local environmental nonprofit Ecotrust, found that the amount of fruits and vegetables eaten by Abernethy students increased, the number of students who participated in the lunch program rose, and the meals met the USDA nutritional requirements. 

[[block(sidebar).

h1. Snack time

Amy Rubin and Susan Kalafa encourage parents to eat lunch in their children’s cafeterias during National School Lunch Week, October 15-19. 

“Ask to see the ingredients, learn what’s in the food, learn where it comes from, and ask yourself if this is what you want your kids eating 180 days a year,” says Kalafa. But be warned: Rubin got kicked out of her daughters’ school lunchroom for doing just this. 

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The Ecotrust report also found that the Abernethy meals cost more than those at a similar school that did not have a scratch kitchen: $3.52 per child versus $1.67. But the report attributed the difference to the cost of labor rather than to the cost of food. An analysis of the second year is due out in October, but Colwell says that with systems in place, labor costs in 2006-2007 dropped significantly. 

“We know Abernethy isn’t losing any more \[money\] than any other school in the district that does heat-and-serve \[meals\],” she says. 

While Colwell holds no fantasies that all 83 of the schools in the Portland district are going to fire up their own scratch kitchens anytime soon, she does believe change will gradually come to Portland. 

Elements of the Abernethy program have already been exported district-wide. More schools have edible learning gardens tended by the students, Nutrition Services is procuring more of its food from local growers, and a Harvest of the Month program has been established at all schools. 

“We positioned the scratch kitchen as part of the institution, so it could be evaluated within the system. It says it can be done,” says Colwell. “To me, Abernethy represents a holistic approach, a partnership between farms, Portland Schools, and Nutrition Services. It’s the best way to support the wellness plan.”

The same year that the Abernethy program started, chef Ann Cooper took over the school-lunch program in Berkeley, California. Cooper spent several years as executive chef at the private Ross School in East Hampton, New York, before Alice Waters and the Chez Panisse Foundation lured her away to improve the diets of Berkeley’s 10,000 public-school students. 

When Cooper arrived in Berkeley in 2005, 95 percent of the food served in the cafeterias was processed. By the end of the 2007 school year, 90 percent of the products Cooper was using were fresh; many of them came from local farmers. And from the government commodities program — which offers cut-rate overstock to all schools nationwide — she bought only whole foods. 

Given the childhood obesity crisis, Cooper believes that American schools should start offering free nutritious lunches to all students. “We’re looking at a pandemic of childhood obesity,” says the self-titled Renegade Lunch Lady. “Wellness and nutrition should be part of the school curriculum. I don’t see \[serving nutritious meals\] as any different from teaching other subjects. It’s part of our children’s education.” 

Cooper says that, with the attention the Centers for Disease Control is giving to childhood obesity, the time is ripe for change; she challenges national politicians to take more leadership on children’s health. “It’s going to take some political will for that to happen, and the only way we’re going to get some political will is if moms go out on the street and protest,” she says. 

Enter Susan Rubin and Amy Kalafa, rabblerousers from Connecticut who teamed up to produce “Two Angry Moms,” a movie that highlights the flaws of the National School Lunch Program and offers solutions that have been implemented in different parts of the country. Examples include the school district in Riverside, California, where food-service director Rodney Taylor buys locally grown produce from the farmers’ market for school salad bars, and the ConVal School District in New Hampshire, where food-service director Tony Geraci has established a farm-to-cafeteria program, gotten rid of junk food, and invited kids to help plan and cook meals.

[%image bsf float=left width=200 caption="The logo of the Better School Food Network."]

Rubin has been working to improve school lunches in her community for more than 10 years, ever since her daughter came home from first grade with fruit roll-ups in her backpack. “As a dentist, I was appalled,” says Rubin. “To me, food is health care.” Rubin believes that, in addition to obesity, the rise in cancer, asthma, and allergy rates are all related to our poor diets. In response, she developed the Better School Food Network to share information and encourage other parents to get involved in their local school-lunch programs. 

Filmmaker Kalafa, who has produced numerous food shows for PBS, wants to convince parents that they have the power to make changes. “There are many creative ways parents can get what they want, as long as they work together as a community. Here in our local communities we can have an impact not just on the school, but on the planet,” Kalafa says. “We all know that a dollar invested in a lunch today is one hundred dollars saved in health care in the future. It’s time to pay attention and put that money where it needs to go.” 

p(bio). Anne Laufe is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon. 

Also on Culinate: See Deborah Madison’s take on French school lunches in her Culinate column.


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