Brussels Sprouts for the Children! 

Q&A with All-Star Abernethy School Chef Nicole Hoffmann

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NICOLE HOFFMANN is an unusual school lunch lady. The tattooed chef in Abernethy Elementary's kitchen sources 40 percent of her menu locally and often dishes up the veggies that Southeast Portland students grow in the school garden. In 2010, the White House even invited Hoffmann to meet with healthy-lunch campaigner Michelle Obama.

But this month, Portland Public Schools announced that the feds' new healthy lunch regulations would likely kill Abernethy's model lunch program because of bureaucracy: The school is facing a tight deadline for getting Hoffmann's menu certified. Abernethy parents called an emergency meeting last Tuesday, August 14, and are pitching in to save the kitchen-garden program.

MERCURY: How did you wind up as a school lunch lady?

NICOLE HOFFMANN: Well, I've been cooking professionally for nearly 10 years and spent some time in Alaska running a kitchen on a little organic farm. Then I moved to Portland and couldn't find a job, of course, so I went to culinary school. I started volunteering at Abernethy. I really wanted to make a better connection between kids and the food they eat.

Why not be a chef in a fancy restaurant instead?

I didn't know if the chef-y restaurant thing was really for me. I interned at Tilth, in Seattle, and it was amazing. But I was working 12 hours a day and I wanted to do some more meaningful work. I like the pragmatism of making good food for kids and I like cooking and working from a garden, especially when kids are so involved.

Abernethy's school kitchen is a model for the rest of the district and apparently the rest of the country. What's different about it?

Some parents come in and think that all the food in the salad bar is from the garden, but then I remind them that the gardeners are 10-year-olds. Our school garden would not support the kitchen, but at various times in the year, all our lettuce will be from the garden, or all the toppings for our veggie pizza.

Our most acclaimed vegetables are brussels sprouts. We grow those in the school garden, so before I serve brussels sprouts in the cafeteria, every single kid has seen brussels sprouts, tried brussels sprouts, in some cases planted, harvested, and written papers about brussels sprouts. Last year, we served 75 pounds of brussels sprouts in two days.

We're trying to make menus that can be manifested at other schools. So, like, we made a marionberry vinaigrette that's been used at other schools, and there's a chickpea curry that's part of the district menu that's a riff off an Abernethy recipe. We can try things out on a relatively small scale. Sometimes it's something simple, like making a quesadilla onsite, rather than ordering it. When you make it onsite, there's inevitably a shorter ingredient list, less boxes, less preservatives, less shipping.

Walk me through how you guys make and serve a meal.

Right. We serve lunch to 380 to 400 kids in about 45 minutes, so it's fast and furious. And it's a lot of food. If we're making chicken and broccoli teriyaki, it's sourcing local chicken, making our teriyaki, making our salad dressing, cutting up 40 pounds of chicken, 20 pounds of broccoli, and making a marinade from scratch.

In addition to that, we make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for kids every day, then hummus and pita, plus a full salad bar with hopefully greens from our garden. PB&Js are always an option—we're serving five-year-olds to 12-year-olds—so there's a range of tastes and options, and we all knew those kids in elementary school that ate the same thing every day.

Volunteers help with all of this. Someone comes and washes 400 lunch trays as a volunteer. Parents come in and help me make sandwiches and hummus. And the kids are great, they have gardening as a class, just like music or art.

The new federal school lunch guidelines roll out this fall. How will the new healthier requirements affect your program?

As of two weeks ago, I did not think I had a job in the fall. It's been a roller coaster. I'm realizing how difficult it is to plug our pieces into this new puzzle. For innovative programs like ours, it's a challenge to fit everything into the right slot in the right way. There are very specific guidelines for the kind of fruits and vegetables that need to be served, like over a week, a certain number of dark, leafy greens need to be served, and a certain number of starchy vegetables need to be served.

The standards also have minimums and maximums that you need to hit—the old rules just had minimums, so as long as I was serving two ounces of protein every day, I was fine. Now, if you're serving a whole peanut butter and jelly sandwich every day, you're out of compliance because that's too much bread.

The recipes will need a nutritional analysis, so we can see what the sodium content is, what the saturated fat content is, and sugar. A nutritionist will physically weigh out and assess a real-life serving of food and then do an analysis on a software program, evaluating what kind of canned tomatoes you're using, what kind of pasta. We wind up with an analysis just like you see on the side of the box. I feel pretty confident that we can make it all happen before the deadline.

What does this new process say about the future of healthy school lunches in America?

Ultimately it will raise the bar for a lot of folks who are not making the best choices for what kids eat in school. Right now, it's a hurdle for people who are being innovative. But allocating more money to school lunch programs and rethinking the system for the first time in 30 years, it seems like it's going to be a net positive.

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