The School Where Kids Love Veggies for Lunch

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Creating a scenario in which healthy, whole food can be served within a school lunch program is difficult enough. But then comes the major hurdle of getting kids to try it and to eat it. Abernethy Elementary School of Portland, Oregon, has fully cleared that hurdle, though—with kids literally cheering about fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as eating healthily. 

“I run out of steamed broccoli; I run out of roasted brussels sprouts,” Nicole Hoffman, chef for Food Service at Abernethy Elementary School, told Natural Vitality Kids. “The children are really excited about food here. I hear kids in the hallway having conversations about making healthy choices. I have kids stopping by asking for more fruit and more vegetables, or we go through a load of salad on the salad bar.”

The Educational Difference

What has set Abernethy apart? It turns out that if healthy food is tied in with education, it can make all the difference in the world when it comes to the children’s enthusiasm for eating it. “When I’m serving something in the cafeteria, the kids have often already spent a good amount of time learning about that fruit or vegetable up in the garden classroom first,” Hoffman said.

A shining example is that of brussels sprouts—something many parents have tried unsuccessfully to get their kids to eat. “Portland Public Schools does a harvest of the month program, where districtwide they contract with a farmer for one particular crop each month to be served in every school,” Hoffman related. “In November we had brussels sprouts; a farmer grew them for all the kids in Portland. That meant 80,000-plus kids were trying brussels sprouts on that day. Here at Abernethy, the kids were dissecting brussels sprouts in the garden classroom; they grew them in the garden, they tasted them, and they became really involved in that whole process up in the classroom. By the time I served them in the kitchen, I literally had children cheering for brussels sprouts! I served nearly 50 pounds of them on that day.”

The program began six years ago when Chef Linda Colwell, at the time working for Abernethy Elementary School, established a school garden and garden education project called Garden of Wonders. A short time later she also started up a culinary program at the school in which meals would be cooked from scratch. The program has become a howling success.

Chef Hoffman came to the school three years ago after hearing about the program and becoming interested. “I’ve done a good spell of natural foods production work,” she said. “My ‘cooking epiphany’ was on a little organic farm up in Alaska, where I worked seasonally for four years. That’s where I got really interested in farming and cooking and tying all those pieces together—the real relevance of food, farming, and feeding people delicious meals. I moved to Portland after a summer up in Alaska and was kind of deciding what to do with myself when I heard about this program. I started volunteering here one day a week while I was in culinary school. This is my third year now at Abernethy.”

It is certainly not like “traditional” school cooking—normally, frozen food warmed up in a convection oven or microwave. This is all done from scratch. Given very limited time and USDA constraints, it is quite the feat to prepare the daily meal.

“We are a USDA-funded school lunch program and so there are a lot of parameters to follow,” Hoffman explained. “We have a pretty limited budget: about $1.12 to $1.20 per meal per student, just like any other school lunch program. I have roughly an hour and a half to two hours to make lunch with an assistant who takes care of the salad bar and veggie prep end of things. So we keep it kind of basic—things that we can make really nice in that small amount of time.

“It’s almost parallel to a school lunch menu. We have pizza every week; we have hotdogs once a month—but it’s a local hotdog and we pair that with steamed or roasted vegetables and then a full salad bar. Tonight I’m working on some fajitas that we’re going to bake on Friday and making a cilantro marinade for them. The kids like roasted vegetables a lot. We also do really easy things that seem like kids’ food, such as homemade macaroni and cheese. We have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that we make as an option most days. Then there are other meals that might be more challenging, like chickpea curry or chicken and broccoli teriyaki.”

Besides the children’s love for the food, in testament to the program’s success is the participation rate. According to Hoffman, other schools with similar demographics have about 30 to 35 percent of students participating in the school lunches, whereas Abernethy regularly has 60 to 80 percent.

“I think there’s a faith from the parents that their kids are getting an excellent meal at school,” said Hoffman. “The kids really enjoy the food, and they are very familiar with things that wouldn’t normally be served for a school lunch program.”

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Parental Involvement

A program such as this could not be done without parental support—both at home and with the school.

“We have a truly amazing community,” Hoffman said. “People live very close to the school and there are a lot of families where one parent works from home, so there are plenty of volunteers here. We have a reusable tray program with our lunch program, and instead of serving food on a disposable tray we have these hard plastic trays that the kids eat off. That program was initially funded through a grant a few years ago, but there was no staffing money allocated to washing those trays. So we have volunteers come in every single day, washing 250 to 350 dirty lunch trays, which helps us cut down on about two dumpsters’ worth of trash a week.

“I have parents who come in the afternoons as well and help me make salad dressings or humus or cut up chicken—things like that, that I could use an extra hand with in the afternoon. We also have fun little desserts.”

Due to the children’s enthusiasm, parents become part of the program at home too. “I hand out salad dressing recipes quite a bit,” Hoffman continued. “It’s not just the kids—it’s the parents; so we publish recipes in the school newsletter. The kids and parents are making roasted brussels sprouts at home, or they’re making dragon sauce salad dressing or marionberry vinaigrette. The children are carrying over the activities that are happening here to their homes, and their parents are participating in that. They’re also taking things home from the garden classroom and are raising chickens at home, and they have gardens and are planting food. It really is a holistic program that is being shared by the rest of the family.”

To the White House

Due to the success of the Abernethy program, Hoffman was recently invited to the White House as part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program, aimed at reducing rates of childhood nutrition-related illnesses.

“That was very exciting,” Hoffman said. “Really the most thrilling part of it was to be in a place where there were 700 people who are in some way involved in food. A number of very famous chefs were present; there were high school students who had culinary programs in their schools. It ran the gamut of people’s food experiences; but they were all genuinely excited about school food and making a change in school food, and that just doesn’t happen very often. To be able to connect with others who are doing similar programs, or things that parallel what we’re doing in an after-school program or a community-funded program, was great for me because there are not a lot of people doing this kind of work. I was able to connect and bounce things off other attendees: what’s working and what’s not working, recipes, new ideas, inspiration. It was quite amazing.

“Part of the purpose of the event was to connect chefs with schools—to partner for cooking demonstrations or garden programs, or just to make that connection to schools that maybe don’t have a program like we have. Much of what they gave us we are already doing here, so it was very validating in that regard. And then we did connect with some local chefs; there is a restaurant just a few blocks away that we connected with, and we had a cooking demonstration from their chef with some of our kids, so it’s further outreach into the community.”

Hoffman concluded with her statement of passion for what she does. “We have a limited amount of time and a limited amount of money to spend, but feeding kids—it doesn’t get much more satisfying than that. These children are very excited about food, willing to try things, and they give me great feedback. Just working with them and connecting with them one on one, bringing real whole food into their everyday lives, is relevant work and it’s tremendously satisfying.”