Real Food, Real Challenges, Real Successes in Portland, Oregon, Public Schools

While the food focus may have shifted from the 2012 National Nutrition Month theme of “Get Your Plate In Shape,” to National Garden Month or Soyfoods Month, today the dedicated school nutrition professionals in Portland, Oregon, are doing what they do every month: Tackling the complex job of providing “delicious, high quality, nutrient-rich meals” to thousands of children in an extraordinarily diverse, urban school system. They have the responsibility – and the commitment – to get student trays “in shape for the requirements of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Portland Public Schools Nutrition Services is just one of many districts dedicated to bringing real food to student trays, while working with the also-very-real financial and regulatory challenges of USDA programs. Serving over 11,000 breakfasts, 21,000 lunches, and 2,500 suppers every day makes PPS Nutrition Services one of the largest “restaurant” chains in the city, with gorgeous salad bars and Fresh Fruit and Vegetable snack programs as well. And, they do this all for about $1.20 per meal for food – fresh and locally sourced whenever possible.

For my money, these folks are more than school nutrition professionals. As White House chef Sam Kass has said on numerous occasions, they are school nutrition HEROES. I have had the pleasure of seeing PPS Nutrition Services in action, mostly recently for this delicious lunch at James John Elementary, winner of a 2012 School Wellness Award from the Oregon Department of Education.

So, how does PPS Nutrition Services work nutrition magic for the 47,000+ students in their district? Like the many other outstanding school nutrition programs, they use three over-arching strategies:

1. They get the big picture.

PPS Nutrition Services sets high standards for their program with a mission of “educating palates, inspiring culinary curiosity, and nourishing the health of the community through school meals.” They participate in national initiatives, like School Food Focus, and in local programs, like EcoTrust’s FoodHub, to leverage limited budgets and purchase as much fresh, local, real food as possible.

This meal from Madison High School Food Week showcases Portland Nutrition Services perfectly with features lemon rosemary Draper Valley chicken, kale salad from the Madison school garden, NW apples and pears, nutrient-rich fat-free/low-fat milk, and a delicious yogurt parfait with Oregon strawberries from the Willamette Valley (fresh frozen no sugar added). Pictured left to right are Stacey Sobell of Ecotrust, Annie Kirschner from Partners for Hunger Free Oregon, and Gitta Grether-Sweeney, PPS Nutrition Director.

2.     They sweat the small stuff.

Walk through a school cafeteria with PPS Registered Dietitian Shannon Stember and her eyes take in every detail – entrée presentation, salad bar food safety, and kids eating (or not) the food on their trays. She has helped to make the translation from MyPlate to the new meal patterns make sense for kids using the trays they actually eat on every day.

Like other excellent programs, Portland, Oregon, only needs minimal changes to meet the new USDA meal patterns for schools meals. Looking ahead, they know that the key will be getting real, sometime finicky kids to eat the nutrient-rich options on their trays. Like smart marketers and motivators, they are looking for every opportunity to get nutrient-rich foods onto student trays – and more importantly, into their bodies!!

3.     They make nutrition appealing and easy.

Knowing that it’s only nutrition when they eat or drink it, Portland Public Schools Nutrition Services constantly balances student preferences and nutrition guidelines. They educate children’s palates with new options, like black bean/corn/cilantro salad, while making it easy for kitchen staff to prepare dishes with limited time and equipment. They inspire curiosity through Fresh Fruit and Vegetable snacks in the classroom – and work tirelessly to upgrade the culinary skills of their more than 240 staff members.

Kudos and gratitude to all the enthusiastic school nutrition professionals in Portland – and across the country – who are committed to ensuring that students are well-nourished and ready to learn every day.

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