PORTLAND, Ore. – Following a year spent observing students in the cafeteria and chefs in the kitchen at SE Portland’s Abernethy Elementary kitchen, Ecotrust today announced the Scratch Kitchen pilot program has earned a passing grade. During a public luncheon event led by the project’s lead partners, including Portland Public Schools Nutrition Services, Abernethy Elementary and Injury Free Coalition for Kids, Ecotrust’s Food and Farms program provided a clear-eyed look at the realities of procuring, preparing and cooking school meals from scratch in the school’s unique environs.
The findings were a result of a seven-month analysis coordinated by Ecotrust, whereby the Scratch Kitchen model was studied closely — from the ingredients and recipes used in the kitchen and meal planning, down to the food placed on the students’ trays and what was consumed by this often picky group of eaters.
The school’s well-conceived and integrated emphasis on student “wellness” recognizes the whole child, not just the academic child. In addition to the scratch kitchen and its homemade meals — the school features a Garden of Wonders and companion indoor classroom, curriculum integration, and an emphasis on daily, safe physical activity.
Principal Tammy Barron says “This isn’t about kids making Carmen Miranda fruit hats in art class. We’re talking about real integration in everything we do here throughout the school.”
Under the leadership of Portland Public School Nutrition Services (PPSNS), the Scratch Kitchen is designed to help PPSNS determine whether cooking from scratch can markedly alter the consumption habits of public schoolchildren; assess whether elements of the program are replicable in other public schools in the Portland area; and assist the district in shaping its overall Wellness Policy for all schools.
On the whole, kids, parents and teachers reported high marks for the food created and served out of the Scratch Kitchen. Participation in school lunch jumped up a notch at Abernethy by three percent, while the study’s control school lunch participation experienced a three percent decrease.
“While seemingly small, the increase demonstrates that participation did not fall when new or unfamiliar meals appear on the menu,” said Deborah Kane, vice president of Ecotrust Food and Farms Program. “Students at Abernethy consistently chose more fruits and vegetables from the freshly stocked salad bar, compared to the control school students."
In interviews and informal exchanges with kids, parents and teachers, the Scratch Kitchen received praise overall. Parents liked the “nutritious and healthy” aspect and the fact that their kids were being encouraged to try new entrees. Kids enjoyed the novel colors, flavors and textures of foods prepared in new ways. Teachers were able to link their curriculum to both the Garden of Wonders and Scratch Kitchen with lessons ranging from nutrition to biology.
Nutritionally, Scratch Kitchen meals stood the test of the USDA’s high standards and came in neck-in-neck with control school meals when calories, fat, protein and other nutrients were compared and contrasted. As the program’s organizers expected, it costs more to operate a scratch kitchen.
Food costs were lower than the control school and labor costs were higher. The Abernethy pilot recorded a deficit while the control posted a small profit. The loss during the pilot year was attributed to the “start-up” investment required to put long-term systems into place and the additional labor required to make meals from scratch.
Making the Lunch Line Longer
As PPSNS enters the second year of the Scratch Kitchen at Abernethy, it will be keeping a close eye on costs. To close the financial gap, PPS will refine systems and work to draw more children to the lunch line by serving food the kids like and getting buy-in from the parents. To satisfy the first goal, Colwell plans to balance the familiar foods with the novel. Strategies include increasing opportunities to sample new foods both in the classroom and in the lunch line. For garnering parental and community support, PPS and Abernethy plan to promote their program through an interactive event on Oct.14 that will educate and inspire community members.
In addition to supporting year two at Abernethy, PPSNS will lead the development of a “Harvest of the Month” program. The goal of this new initiative is to serve one entree made from scratch lunch, featuring a seasonal fruit or vegetable, in the 34 elementary schools within the district. Classroom curricula, tied to the selected fruit or vegetable of the month, will be made available to participating schools. PPSNS will also work in partnership with PTAs and school administration to expand schoolyard garden programs throughout the district.
One of the most rewarding outcomes of the pilot program for the district was the ease of and satisfaction in partnering with local businesses, restaurants and farms in order to procure foodstuffs as close to home as possible. As a result, PPSNS has made a commitment to seek out opportunities to substitute existing products with locally grown and locally made products to use in the lunch program system wide.
“What started as a scratch kitchen project is now about local purchasing and so much more,” said, Kristy Obbink, Director of Nutrition Services at PPS. “The project has been a platform that bridged PPSNS and the community. We always viewed Abernethy as a learning laboratory. We’ve been very pleased with the lessons learned this year and look forward to rolling out elements of the program district wide over time.”
“Kids in school should understand where their food comes from and learn healthy eating behaviors,” states PPSNS’s Obbink. “Schools, therefore, have a responsibility to model those behaviors.”
Aiming for an A+ on their next report card, the Abernethy Scratch Kitchen and PPSNS will refine their internal processes with an eye toward increasing efficiencies — all the while capitalizing on the enjoyment and delight, kids, parents and teachers derive from a good, home-cooked meal.
About Ecotrust Food & Farms Program www.ecotrust.org
Since 2001, Ecotrust’s Food & Farms program has been investing in building direct market connections between farmers, ranchers, and fishermen and restaurant chefs, grocery retail buyers, institutions and distributors. One of five major program areas of the Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit Ecotrust, the Food & Farms Program is building a vision for a sustainable food system. www.ecotrust.org
NOTE: High resolution photos available upon request.