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Portland Public Schools: Eat.Think.Grow

PPS has embarked on a vigorous effort to “buy local” for key meal promotions.

Under Obbink's direction, PPS has embarked on a vigorous effort to “buy local.” Under its definition, “local” means buying foods produced or processed in Oregon, Washington or Northern California, roughly the 300-mile circumference suggested by Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma. (It is also the definition used by a popular local grocery chain that regularly promotes “buy local” policies).

While that philosophy cannot practically be applied across the entire school nutrition menu, PPS demonstrates it regularly in efforts like “Local Lunch” a once-a-month program in which everything on the menu is locally sourced.

Last October, Local Lunch featured cheese quesadillas with locally-produced Tillamook cheese. Other months have featured locally sourced and naturally-produced chicken and beef and product from well known Oregon provider Truitt Bros. (Changes specified in the 2004 Farm Bill allow for specifying such local products in school programs).

The school faced some special issues when it came to cooking raw chicken and beef, because PPS, like many schools, has moved almost exclusively to using pre-cooked meats in recent years,” says Obbink. It meant implementing additional safe food handling procedures beyond those in PPS' existing HACCP program, a challenge addressed by Gitta Grether-Sweeny, RD.

Grether-Sweeny oversees middle and high school operations as well as supply chain management. She developed on-line training and testing that staff at each school had to complete before they could prepare and serve the chicken and beef.

Harvest of the Month is another program developed to shine a spotlight on the seasonality of Oregon-grown foods. Sweet corn on the cob, October's featured item, was oven-roasted and very popular. Parsnips were a surprise success. Later in the year, locally grown berries and asparagus will make their debut.

As in many districts, all of the schools feature fruit and vegetable bars. What makes Portland's approach special is that children can take as much as they want and even come back for more.

A variety of fresh and locally canned products, as well as USDA commodity items, are available depending on the menu. On a recent day featuring Mexican entrees, salsa canned to district specifications was available, along with fresh pear wedges, salad, carrots, canned peach slices, and several other items.

“We've had great success incorporating local items into our menus,” says Obbink. “There is a wheat cooperative in the eastern part of the state that we buy our flour from. We even spec it for pizza, which is prepared by a local processor to our specifications. It is competitive in pricing to the national chains and our kids prefer it.”

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