Abernethy's Garden of Wonders

Abernethy's Garden Of Wonders

Fri 03 Jun 2011

Story by Sarah Sullivan

On a quiet, residential, inner southeast Portland, Oregon street, a little elementary school is breaking new ground for the farm-to-school and school garden movements.

At Abernethy Elementary, students enjoy freshly cooked breakfasts and lunches prepared on-site by trained chef Nicole Hoffman. The meals are often prepared with local and seasonal ingredients, some of which are harvested from the school’s ‘Garden of Wonders’.

The garden itself is entirely planted, tended and harvested by the students, who use it throughout their school day as a “learning laboratory”.

The garden program and scratch kitchen are part of a unique wellness policy at Abernethy that goes further than food. The students are encouraged to keep active by a full-time physical education teacher, and enthusiastic parents have got involved by walking and biking their kids to school rather than driving. Every year, parents and staff organize a bike-a-thon - the money raised for the school allows Abernethy students to ride bikes and scooters on car-free streets.

The School Kitchen Garden program began life in 2000 as just a community garden plot, founded by a dedicated group of parents and teachers. The teachers agreed to add garden class as an extracurricular class for students.

In the past 11 years, not only has the program grown to include a dynamic garden curriculum aimed at supporting state standards, but it’s also become the focus of much of the school’s community activities. Events run throughout the year such as an annual Harvest Festival, a community Chili Cook-off, and a Chefs-in-Residence program.

I’m the Garden Coordinator, and Chef Nicole and I run five weeks of summer camps at the school, teaching everything from pickling to pasta making, permaculture and organic bio-intensive gardening.

The program has drawn loads of support from the community, from groups such as the Portland Schools Foundation, EcoTrust, the Kaiser Family Foundation, Slow Food, Chef’s Collaborative, and Portland State University’s FEED (Food-based Ecological Education Design) project. It’s funded mostly through parent and community donation, and volunteers give many hours to keep the program running.

Today, a full-time AmeriCorps volunteer serves as the Food and Garden Coordinator, instructing the students in the vegetable garden, the native plant garden, and the kitchen classroom, while a program coordinator provides the link between the garden teacher, chef, PTA, media and partners city and statewide.

Abernethy also serves as the ‘test kitchen’ for Portland Public Schools, creating many recipes and menu items that have moved into schools across the district. We’re obviously doing something right – while the average percentage of students buying hot lunch daily at Portland schools is about 30 percent, lunches from the Abernethy kitchen attract at least 60 percent of the school’s children!

Nicole has a brief that would make most chefs flee for the hills: to work closely with Nutrition Services to create interesting recipes that still meet USDA standards – for only $1.07 per meal...She’s been so successful that her work was honored by a visit to the White House to kick-off Michelle Obama's Chefs Move to Schools program. The program, part of Obama's initiative to fight childhood obesity, will match chefs nationwide with schools to teach kids about nutrition in an engaging, tasty way.

Together Hoffmann and PPS have focused on sourcing better staple ingredients to introduce wide-sweeping change: All wheat used in Portland Public Schools, for example, is grown sustainable and locally by Shepherds Grain flour. All chicken is raised locally and hormone-free by Draper Valley farm. Beans and grains are grown by farmers in the Willamette Valley. Yogurt is made in Eugene, Oregon. At this point Portland Public Schools are serving about 40% locally-sourced food.

Slowly but surely Abernethy’s students are even fans of the more “creative” dishes from the kitchen like chef Nicole’s chicken Panang curry, falafel with riata, and garden-harvest veggie soup.

Other menu-items that have been developed in the Abernethy demonstration kitchen include Indian curry with chicken or garbanzo beans; hummus and pita; three bean vegetarian Chili from Truitt Bros in Salem and hand-made bean & cheese burritos. Healthy, cheap, educational - and the students love it!

About the author: Sarah Sullivan is the Abernethy School Kitchen Garden Program Coordinator.


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