Abernathys maaaagical school garden.
  • Abernethy's maaaagical school garden.
The very federal guidelines meant to make school lunches healthier might wind up hurting the model garden-to-table program of Portland's Abernethy elementary school. Parents and teachers attended an emergency meeting at Abernethy Tuesday night, after Portland Public School officials informed the staff that the new regulations might wind up at least temporarily derailing the lauded school kitchen garden program.

Abernethy, located in Ladd's Addition, has exactly the kind of school lunch that the new federal guildelines aim to create nationwide. In-school chefs put together tasty breakfasts and lunches every day from scratch, culling the recipes from local foods and even a school garden that's called the "Garden of Wonders." Abernethy's all-star school chef, Nicole Hoffmann, was invited to the White House in 2010 to receive an award from healthy-school-lunch-spearheader Michelle Obama.

But because Abernethy's program is unique among Portland Public Schools (PPS), the district would have to do essentially twice as much work to certify its menu along with the new, updated menus of the rest of the district—something PPS says it doesn't have time and money for before the fed's year-end deadline to revamp all school lunches. If any school in the district misses the deadline, the district could lose $200,000 in federal lunch funding. So until the school's unique from-scratch menu can be certified, the district suggested the school ditch its unique model and switch for a while to the school lunches slopped out to the rest of Portland's schools.

That idea is not sitting well with parents, who fundraised to build the garden program and see it as integral to their kids' education.

Tuesday night, the auditorium at Abernethy school was standing-room-only, as parents packed the hall for an emergency meeting called to save the school garden and kitchen program.

"I've not heard any doubt that we are in compliance. The issue is certification. What we are dying to know is what we have to do to keep the kitchen open," said Dwight Holton, an Abernethy parent (and former Attorney General candidate) who moderated the meeting. By the way, all school-parent meetings should henceforth be moderated by federal prosecutors. They go a lot more quickly.

School lunches might seem like a haphazard affair of hot dogs and green beans, but the specifics behind the food that lands on a lunchtray is a very specific science. The new nutrition guideline changes are really complicated, but here's a sample before and after menu—the feds now require twice as many fruits and 1.5 times as many vegetables in each lunch, and set precise minimum and maximum requirements for proteins and grains. To meet the new rules, the school district has to create new recipes that meet the new guidelines, then submit one week's worth of menus to be reviewed by a federal authority. Schools will also receive an on-site visit from a certifier. Because it uses a different menu and recipes from the rest of the district, all this work would have to be done again just for Abernethy.

"We'll have to do as much work for Abernethy as we've done for the whole rest of the district," says PPS spokesman Matt Shelby, who says the district asked for a waiver for Abernathy, but was denied this summer. "We have to align our menu with these guidelines. We were doing that with the belief that Abernethy would continue to be a unique outlier... We're on a time crunch and we don't have a resolution yet."

The idea that emerged from last night's meeting was that parents and chef Hoffmann would shoulder the burden of the transition, rather than letting the program lie fallow. Hoffman and a nutritionist could attend a federally-run training about the new program, develop new menus as the school year begins, submit them in October, and cross their fingers that the federal authorities-that-be find their from-scratch menu in compliance.

If not, the new federal healthy lunch rules meant to raise the bar on food for all could mean a less-healthy lunch of some Portland school kids.