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Oregon School Cafeteria Makes It from Scratch

Third-grader Devina Boughton holds a carrot harvested from her school's garden.
Jane Greenhalgh / NPR
Third-grader Devina Boughton holds a carrot harvested from her school's garden.
School chef James Fowler ladles out the soup of the day: carrot.
Jane Greenhalgh / NPR
School chef James Fowler ladles out the soup of the day: carrot.

Thanksgiving is a time to savor good food, something you don't expect to find in a school cafeteria. In fact, most schools across the country serve reheated, premade food that is trucked in from central kitchens. Daily offerings are often uninspiring: chicken sticks, macaroni and cheese, and pizza.

But there is a move in some parts of the country to bring real cooking back to school kitchens. Last year, Abernathy Elementary School in Portland, Ore., bought a second-hand stove and a big mixer and started cooking all its food from scratch.

The public school's scratch kitchen was the idea of Linda Colwell, a chef and a parent.

"I hoped that making good seasonal food from scratch would impact the way children think about food and their connection to it," Colwell says.

The program goes beyond just cooking. Children at Abernathy Elementary grow vegetables in the school garden, and they learn about the vegetables in the classroom. A recent lesson focused on the plant of the week: the carrot. The children learned that the carrot originated in Afghanistan and moved to Iran, Syria and the Mediterranean before crossing the sea to the Americas.

They also learned about why the vitamin A in carrots helps muscles, eyesight and the immune system. The children then harvested carrots from the school garden and enjoyed tasty carrot soup for lunch.

Tammy Barron, principal at Abernathy, says the children are much more likely to eat the vegetables they are learning about.

"When they have picked the Swiss chard from the garden and they've done some cooking with it in the cooking classroom, they are more willing to try it when it shows up as chard pesto in the cafeteria, because it's not something strange and green," Barron says. "It's something they know about."

The food served to Abernathy Elementary's 360 students is not more expensive. In fact, it's cheaper. The school chef, James Fowler, spends $.05 less on food per child per meal than other Portland public schools.

Labor costs, however, are higher. Abernathy Elementary has two people working in its kitchen; most other schools have only one.

Fowler supplements the vegetables grown in the school garden with produce purchased from local farmers.

"Everything I buy is bought locally," he says. The fact that he's cooking the food from scratch means he has more control over ingredients.

"You won't find any trans fat in this kitchen," he says, referring to artificially hydrogenated oil that increases the level of bad cholesterol in the bloodstream.

"There may be some corn syrups lurking in dark corners, but hopefully they will be gone soon when I can find products to replace them," Fowler says, adding that none of his food is fried.

The Abernathy scratch kitchen, or Abernathy Cafe, as Fowler likes to call it, has been open for a year and was recently evaluated by Ecotrust, a non-profit organization that tries to encourage restaurants, groceries and institutions to buy their food locally.

Ecotrust found that while there was no significant nutritional difference between entrees served at Abernathy and those served at other Portland public schools, they did find that Abernathy students now eat almost twice the amount of fruits and vegetables than they ate before the program started.

And Fowler points out that the children are throwing much less of the food away, a sign that they're enjoying it more. Devina Boughton, a third grader, gives the food a vote of support.

"What we used to have for lunch was really disgusting," Devina says. "Disgusting macaroni and cheese, disgusting chicken nuggets. Yuck, it was terrible. Now it's all homemade and it tastes so much better."

Below, school chef Fowler provides two favorite recipes from his Abernathy Cafe.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jane Greenhalgh is a senior producer and editor on NPR's Science Desk.