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Portland Public Schools Stand Behind Fresh Foods
By Juliann Schaeffer

The food served in public schools has taken a lot of heat lately, and it’s certainly not all undeserved. However, this shouldn’t shroud the innovative changes RDs are making in numerous schools around the country.

One school district that’s taking a fresh food approach to serving up tasty healthful meals is Portland (Ore.) Public Schools (PPS). Although this isn’t the district’s first foray into the fresh-food-in-schools movement, its Harvest of the Month and Local Flavors programs stand out.

An urban school district with roughly 47,000 students in 81 schools, PPS is the largest school district in the Pacific Northwest, says Shannon Stember, RD, LD, assistant director for PPS nutrition services.

The district offers five federally funded child nutrition programs: the National School Lunch Program, the National School Breakfast Program, the After-School Supper Program, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, and the Summer Food Service Program. It also was an early adopter of the Breakfast After the Bell program.

No stranger to a passion for fresh food, the city and the district have a long history of making healthful foods a priority. “Portland is a food mecca and the home of Slow Food [an organization that seeks to counter the fast-food/fast-life philosophy], so it was a natural development for Portland parents, who were chefs and gardeners, to place a high value on knowledge about food and how it grows and to want to introduce gardening and food experiences to schools,” Stember says.

Today’s Dietitian asked Stember about the details of two such programs currently serving fruits and vegetables to district students as well as what the students think about the programs thus far.

Harvest of the Month Program
PPS’s Harvest of the Month program sprang up from another of the district’s earlier fresh food efforts that involved introducing students to a school garden.

Stember says, “Portland’s Harvest of the Month program is a campaign in which all school cafeterias feature a locally grown seasonal fruit or vegetable twice each month.”

Whether fresh, frozen, or canned, all fruits and veggies are grown and processed in Oregon, thereby supporting the local economy while introducing “young city eaters to our state's agricultural bounty,” Stember says. Frozen or canned varieties are incorporated because Oregon doesn’t have a year-round growing season. “We’re teaching children about preserving foods so they can be enjoyed throughout the winter months,” she adds.

Local Flavors Program
Local Flavors brings regional products to district students through partnerships among local growers, producers, and businesses. “More than 30% of PPS purchases now benefit local farms and food producers,” Stember says. “Examples include sustainably grown no-till Shepherd’s Grain wheat, which is used by our local bakery to produce 100% whole wheat hamburger buns, rolls, and sandwich bread and by a local pizza company for our whole grain pizza crust.”

This program also evolved from earlier experiments that sought to use a menu with 100% local ingredients to be served once each month. While it benefited the local economy, students didn’t like their favorite foods being taken away, and sufficient resources were simply not available to educate kids and get their buy-in.

“So now, instead of limiting choices, the Local Flavors program highlights regionally grown food throughout PPS’s menu more often than the original once-a-month Local Lunch,” Stember says. “By creating ongoing partnerships between farmers and local companies who make breads, sauces, dressings, and other products, we increase awareness among students and families and have a greater economic impact on the local economy.”

So far, she says students’ reactions to the programs have been varied—but encouraging. “Depending on their age and prior experiences with the foods at home and now at school, some students are enthusiastic and help to encourage other students to try the new food, while others react with fear and uncertainty, pulling their plates away from the sample being offered despite a great deal of coaxing,” she explains.

Yet now that the programs are in their fifth year, she says the schools are seeing more positive responses than ever. “Often, we hear stories from parents that their child asked them to buy a specific vegetable and cook it just like they did at school,” Stember says.
While insufficient resources have served as Stember’s biggest challenge in sustaining these programs, she suggests other RDs who are considering revising their school lunch programs look to community organizations for assistance. “Build partnerships with community organizations that share the goal of providing the best possible school meal programs for children, and that also understand and support working within the existing food system with the available resources,” she says.
Using already-established resources can make all the difference. “Don’t spend your time reinventing the wheel—learn from and utilize all the information and materials developed across the country,” recommends Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, president of Nutrition for the Future, Inc. “While not all of it may apply to your state, you can adapt existing resources to fit your needs.”

And no matter what response you get, be patient. “Be supportive, help locate resources, and appreciate small steps. It takes time to change the current food system that’s been created over the last 40 to 50 years,” Hayes says.

Both short and long term, Stember has high hopes for these programs and what they seek to accomplish: “Our Farm to School Programs are ‘growing’ healthy eaters who will appreciate and support sustainable agriculture in Oregon. In the short term, we’re successfully introducing children to new foods and increasing their fruit and vegetable choices. In the long term, we hope we’re educating palates, inspiring culinary curiosity, and nourishing the health of the community through our school meal program.”

— Juliann Schaeffer is an associate editor at Great Valley Publishing and a regular contributor to Today's Dietitian.