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Portland redeems school lunches, breakfasts

I've been downright cynical about the fate of school lunches. The breakfasts have often been the worst: plastic-wrapped greasy sugar-or-salt balls, was my verdict. While there may have technically been "nutrition," protein and carbohydrates and some pass at vitamin enrichment, I suspected breakfast from McDonald's would have been healthier.

Today, I dropped my children off late at school and there was a big basket of leftover breakfast in the office. Monroe got one, too, and as we headed home I checked it out. The Zac O Mega-bar had me at "northwest fruit filling" and the insurmountably reliable ingredients list which was filled with stuff that's in my kitchen, not the contents of a chem lab. Yes, there's still sugar (zoinks!) but I was pleased with the whole wheat flour and oats, the molasses and honey. Fairlight Bakery in Vancouver makes the treats, and uses Shepherd's Grain flour from northern Washington, a sustainable farming cooperative.

It smelled good -- smelled real! -- and tasted great.  Today's lunch is macaroni and cheese; I've got a call in to ask further, but a lot of effort has gone into making more food from scratch, so I'm hopeful.

The school district eliminated ranch dressing -- saving $60,000 -- so it could serve "real meat" (actual pieces of meat instead of the scraps left behind from other commercial uses). Harvest ingredients, fresh and frozen produce from local farms, continue to be featured a few times a month. Next week, a new menu item will be featured: Indian curry with chickpeas or chicken. I'm tempted to hang out at a cafeteria on Thursday and try it for myself.

Of course, there's much farther to go. The menu has gotten rid of most desserts, but the sugar content of my breakfast bar was still pretty high (16g of sugar is 4g more than the AHA's recommended maximum added sugar intake for elementary-aged children -- of course, a few of those grams are from the northwest berries). One of the daily options for kids -- and the only choice for children who don't have lunch money and haven't qualified for free lunches -- is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I might be fine with that, but it's the Smuckers Uncrustables, whose ingredient list is a bit terrifying. Let's just say, these ingredients are not found in crocks on my kitchen counter. The local Yami yogurt available on the lunch line is also fairly high in sugar -- about 8 grams of added sugar per little serving, or more than half the days' recommendation.

I'm thankful that our school nutrition services team decided that our kids are worth the extra time, money and effort to figure this out. I'm thrilled we're so lucky, and hoping this will go farther. I'd like to see, for instance, more money from the federal government for school lunches, and more support for local farms. I'd also like to see the district do away with the styrofoam trays at all the schools. (If you're at Abernethy, Ainsworth, Buckman, Chapman, Glencoe, Lewis and Skyline elementary schools, and da Vinci and West Sylvan middle schools, you've already got them.) Instead of just drawing the line at "real" meat, I'd like to see meat raised in a truly sustainable way, by local farmers.

But a little thing can thrill me, and this morning, I was thrilled by an orange-wrapped strawberry breakfast bar. Thanks PPS: keep aiming higher for our kids.


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Awesome! Good to hear.

That's wonderful to hear! And honestly, a little bit of sugar in the yogurt doesn't bother me that much. If your child drinks juice ever, you're probably serving more sugar than is recommended daily anyway. And forget ever having dessert. YAY PPS! Keep up the trend towards positive and healthy eating.

You might be interested to know that the recipe for indian curry comes from Chef Nicole Hoffman at Abernethy Elelmentary.

You can read about the work she has done to promote better school lunches here:

The kids, parents and staff love the food she makes and are so proud of the work she and the community at Abernethy have done to get better school lunches on the table throughout PPS.

PPS does a great job and it's nice to see them getting some of their due. Oregon is one of the few states that does not subsidize school lunches, meaning that PPS are making school lunches for the federal rate of $2.74/lunch (the federal governments reimbursement rate of free and reduced lunches, which 50% of students in PPS qualify for). I'm fortunate enough to know several of the women who run the school nutrition program and the word 'dedicated' doesn't even come close to their commitment.

Incidentally, I've heard director Gitta Grether-Sweeney say that the reason they use the Smuckers Uncrustables is because of peanut allergies. These are the only sandwiches they can find (for a price they can afford) that are individually packaged to prevent peanut contamination. Just another example of the many complexities associated with school food. There is a great article in Portland Monthly about the challenges and successes of PPS which is available at http://www.portlandmonthlymag.com/eat-and-drink/articles/school-lunch-0910/.

I'm still shocked that it cost taxpayers $60K to put ranch dressing on our kids' trays.

When I was a kid on PPS' free lunch and breakfast program, breakfast was usually leftover hamburger buns with melted American "cheese." So glad to see things heading in the right direction.

I would love if they'd do away with chocolate milk. I guess they figure that some kids wouldn't drink plain milk...so something is better than nothing. But I disagree. My son drinks plenty of plain milk at home and loves it; but watch him make choices at school and the chocolate milk is on his tray every time. I honestly think it is the only reason he pleads with us to eat hot lunch.

thanks for all your comments and the info, Melia and heather! PDX mom in NE: I've written a lot about the chocolate milk debate, and the PPS nutrition services folks, and many other cafeteria managers around the country, do quote a study done by the milk processor's board on "flavored milk" versus regular milk, which did have the result of more kids drinking milk if the sweetened versions were available. I'm pretty suspicious about this survey, however; it's not said whether the kids were offered soda or juice alongside the regular milk (surprise, kids will pick the soda if they can), for instance. and yes: if you offer kids something sweet and sugary for lunch, they'll choose it over the less sweet option. we could also do a test where we offered kids a cafeteria tray with vegetables and candy, and a cafeteria tray with just vegetables. what do you want to bet the kids would take more vegetable trays with the candy? it's kind of meaningless and (in my estimation) serves to allow the milk processors to offer a product with a longer shelf life. sugar's a preservative.

Sarah, thanks for the encouraging news, informative analysis--and for calling for further improvement.

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