As farms continue to pump out locally produced and processed goods and  school children continue to wolf down cafeteria lunches, it’s a curious conundrum that more food doesn’t pass directly from local producers into the school systems. In Lane County, the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition and other local organizations have been addressing this issue for the past several years.  With a mission to strengthen the local economy, benefit public health and support local food producers, WFFC has been promoting farm to school connections, becoming a leader in the region and the National Farm to School Network‘s State Lead Agency for Oregon.  Now, with a current bill pending review by Oregon’s House of Representatives, the potential exists to strengthen that connection even more.

House Bill 2800, known as the Oregon Farm to School Act, is sponsored by Rep. Brian Clem (D-Sa lem) and Tina Kotek (D-Portland).  Clem has been pushing Farm to School connections since 2007, and his proposals have resulted in the creation of two positions: one in the Department of Agriculture and one in the Department of Education, both devoted to working with schools to incorporate more locally grown food into their nutrition programs.

The current bill would use grant money to reimburse school districts up to 15 cents per meal for food produced or processed in Oregon.  Current funding for Oregon school lunches comes from the National School Lunch Program, with Oregon being one of the few states that doesn’t help pay for meals.  Reimbursements must also be spent on Oregon food, thus continuing the cycle.  Grants will also be made available to assist in school garden programs, with the potential for incorporating school produce into the lunch program as well.

The original draft of HB 2800 demanded $22 million in state funding, but has since been dramatically reduced.  HB 2800 is now vying for $2 million from state Economic Development Funds.  In part, the reduction means that grants will be awarded on a competitive basis to qualifying schools throughout Oregon.  Originally, the measure was introduced to assist all school districts in the state, but with the budget shortfall these funds will only be available to a select few. Eligibility will likely depend on several factors: schools may be required to have a certain percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, and districts that receive grant money may also need to show that they will be able to integrate the local foods offered with an educational component for students.

Megan Kemple of Willamette Farm and Food Coalition believes that the three districts currently working with WFFC are well poised to take advantage of these funds.  WFFC has already created an active Farm to School Program within the Bethel, Eugene 4J, and Springfield school districts, and has established connections with many growers and food producers in the region, providing the framework to make further improvements to the school lunch program.  In addition, a high percentage of students in these districts qualify for free or reduced lunch.  The educational component of the program should also count as big points for these districts.  WFFC has created a comprehensive educational program that includes lessons about where our food comes from, farm field trips, harvest meals where students prepare freshly harvested farm foods, school garden sessions, nutrition lessons, and tasting tables offering fresh produce from recently visited farms.  The school garden sessions are done in collaboration with the School Garden Project of Lane County, and “garden-based nutrition education” is implemented with the help of Oregon State University’s Nutrition Education Program.  These factors give Kemple confidence that, if the bill does pass, our Eugene-area school districts are likely to reap the benefits.

Nutrition Services Director Rick Sherman of the Eugene 4J school district says that his district has been able to increase its local purchasing by tenfold in the past year.  In 2009, 4J purchased 1,340 lbs ($1,825) worth of local products from Lane County. In 2010, that number increased to 14,252 lbs ($13,635).  Sherman says his district has been able to work with Willamette Farm and Food Coalition in establishing connections with local food producers.  Sherman believes in supporting the local economy: “it’s just the right thing to do,” and says that he has been “able to obtain competitive pricing locally.”  Sherman mentioned that local distributors Emerald Fruit and Produce and Organically Grown Company have been a big help in conserving time and resources spent on finding and purchasing locally grown produce.  “For some reason the public’s perception is that we don’t purchase locally,” Sherman notes.  But, he clarifies, if you include local purchasing from companies such as Franz and Darigold, “our numbers would truly be outstanding.”

One way that the 4J School district promotes local food purchases is though it’s Harvest of the Month program, which highlights a fruit or veggie (or a mushroom or a bean) from a local producer during a month of the school’s lunch program.  Highlighted produce has included kiwis from Greengable Gardens (Philomath) in January, dried pinto beans from Hunton’s Farm (Junction City) in February, and green beans from Thistledown Farm (Junction City) in September.

In a report compiled by Kemple, Bethel School District purchased 18% of its produce from Lane County farms, dairies or food processors in 2009Emerald Fruit and Produce has played a large role in assisting Bethel’s purchases of locally grown food.  Springfield Public School District purchases fewer local products than the other large school districts in the county, but they do buy apples from Wildrose Orchard and carrots and lettuce from FOOD for Lane County’s Youth Farm.  They also utilize Emerald Fruit and Produce for local purchasing.  Other local farms that have been big contributors to the Farm to School program include Detering Orchards and Thistledown Farm.

Randy Henderson of Thistledown Farm says his farm could feed every child in Eugene if the schools had the funds to pay for it.  With 500 acres in production, it’s not a matter of supply; the problem is that produce is often cheaper to buy from Mexico than it is from local farms.  Another issue is the lack of local processors since AgriPac left town, which happened in part because the row crops (corns, beans, beets, carrots, etc) of the Willamette Valley have all gone to grass seed production.  Much local produce is grown during the summer months when children aren’t in school.  Thistledown, however, has been able to sell products such as frozen strawberries to schools during the winter and spring months.  For Henderson, nutrition is still one of the biggest factors in supporting Farm to School programs.  If schools were able to buy more produce, his farm would be able to keep up with demand.

For Roger Detering of Detering Orchards, supplying schools with produce is “part of doing good business, and provides a good outlet for smaller apples that the kids enjoy.” He also says that if schools were able to purchase more local foods, he would be able to supply them with more produce.  Both farmers support the program, but worry that timing is unfortunate for such a bill to pass.

The Farm to School bill has received vast local support.  It passed unanimously through its last phase in the legislative process, and is favored by local farmers, food producers, schools, and organizations like WFFC and the School Garden Project.  It is also predicted to be an economic boon as well.  Agricultural economist Bruce Sorte with Oregon State University estimates the $2 million would create 24 jobs in the first year as the demand for local food products goes up.  Kemple points out that is not so much a matter of opposition to the bill as it is simply finding the funds in Oregon’s dwindling budget to support the program.

According to a progress report from the Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Policy Workgroup, the bill has passed unanimously out of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and will go to the Ways and Means Committee before it reaches the House floor.  It will be assigned to a sub-committee (most likely Natural Resources) before moving into the full Ways and Means and then out onto the House floor.  Because of other budget decision-making, HB 2800 will probably not be addressed for a couple more weeks.  Kemple is hopeful that the bill will pass, but concerned that the state’s budget is so limited.


Photos courtesy of Willamette Farm and Food Coalition