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.
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.
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.”
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
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Change in our kitchens
Reflections on cooking — and a career that’s based largely at the stove.
The Food Corps co-founder
Flatbreads from around the continent
Beyond a supporting role