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The Farm-to-Schools Movement: Schools across the state serve up change

Corn dogs and tator tots are being voted out of school cafeterias across the country. Unless of course they're made from scratch with local, all-natural ingredients. Lunch ladies (and gents) are pioneering a food movement from coast to coast that encompasses a variety of more healthful options: from farm-to-schools programs and scratch kitchens to organic, gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian options.

The National Farm-to-School Network dates back to a 2000 project funded by the USDA Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems. The aim is to not only put local food on the table for schoolkids but to help students to understand where food comes from and how food choices affect our bodies and the environment. The state of Oregon has recently created two positions to encourage farm-to-school programs statewide, but some school districts are a bit ahead of the curve.

The 527-student Riverdale School District easily began a new lunch program a year and a half ago since they are not under the USDA's National School Lunch Program, a federally funded meal program, so that they can offer made-from-scratch, organic, local food (see main story).

Kathy Block-Brown, who runs Four Seasons Flavor catering company which services Riverdale, said the district isn't that far off from the national guidelines but trying to meet them would mean hiring a dietician to monitor serving sizes and nutritional content. Riverdale's meals on average have less than 30 percent fat, so they may already be meeting the nutritional guidelines, she added.

'I couldn't serve the quality I want and keep within the guidelines,' said Block-Brown.

The guidelines that are most prohibitive to her are the limitations districts under the program face for buying local, in-season, organic food. Block-Brown could tell you that the name of her beef rancher is Jonathan. She knows the grass that is fed the cows and could essentially even identify the cow.

Because of pricing requirements through the National School Lunch Program, many schools have to source their products - such as beef or dairy - through commodity sources that aren't necessarily local so they can get it for a lot less money.

The National School Lunch Program has been in place since 1946 and has existed to make lunches affordable for all kids. The program provides low-income families with free and reduced lunches. About seven percent of families in the LOSD use the program's assistance.

'Our model isn't really being discussed,' said Block-Brown, because of its unique freedom outside of the National School Lunch Program. 'But there are parts of it that I think are totally appropriate for programs that are under the USDA.

'All kids should have access to really good food,' added Block-Brown, whose career began as a teacher. 'My whole career in education was working with (at-risk kids). I would love to be able to help kids who don't have access to quality ingredients.'

The USDA is trying to amend the limitations with a new policy that will allow for school districts to give preference to a local grower or manufacturer during the bidding process, which takes place every spring.

Normally, school districts have been required to go with either the lowest bid or a quality indictor, explained Janet Beer, the substitute food services director for the LOSD. Beer, who is the former Tigard-Tualatin School District food services director, is filling in for Sharon Morgan, who is on extended leave.

The LOSD is a part of a cooperative buying group of about 84 districts, private schools or residential child care facilities across the state. The co-op buys from Sysco. Sysco seems to be taking small steps of their own by sending out notices about local produce coming to the schools - a practice they had not previously done, said Beer.

She isn't sure what Morgan has been doing on the issue of locally sourced foods. 'I'm guessing this community is very interested in this topic,' she said, adding that Morgan will respond to the interests of the community.

Some schools are 'real leaders in the state' on the issue, said Beer. Portland is one, and Bend is another.

In Portland Public Schools, Abernethy Elementary School in Ladd's Addition started a pilot farm-to-school program during the 2005-2006 school year that includes a scratch kitchen, an outdoor garden and a garden classroom space for hands-on learning.

PPS hopes to incorporate farm-to-school programs on a district-wide level. 'Every year we're trying to build on what we did the previous year,' said Kristy Obbink, director of nutrition services.

Currently, all the schools have a Harvest of the Month program, which delivers farm fresh fruits and vegetables twice a month from February to June.

The district also recently received a $290,000 grant from Kaiser Permanente Community Fund that has allowed them to add a local lunch once a month. Just one meal once a month isn't enough to push them out of the National School Lunch Program guidelines, said Obbink, but it still wouldn't be possible cost-wise without the grant.

The district also provides a curriculum that can be used in the classroom to coordinate with the local lunch and also encourages cafeterias to use food from school gardens.

The 16,000-student Bend-La Pine School District enjoys a close relationship with the local farmer's market, which is managed by the district wellness specialist Katrina Wiest. Once a week, all 29 district schools, three private schools and three Head Start programs receive a portion of the harvest before it heads to the markets. The produce available is divided into equal portions for each school and served before hot lunch (The food is not currently used in the hot entrée because quantities are limited).

While these are certainly some models that other districts can look to as examples, the state is hoping to provide even more direction from both the standpoint of a farmer and an educator. This summer, the Department of Education (ODE) hired Joan Ottinger to coordinate the Farm-to-School and School Garden Program, and the Department of Agriculture hired Cory Schreiber, founder of Wildwood restaurant in Portland, as Farm-to-School program manager last fall. The ODE position was created by an Oregon legislative bill this March.

'Corey and Joan will make it easier because they'll do a lot of education on both sides,' said Beer. 'Frankly I've been a food service director for almost 30 years, and I've just recently started to get information on how to pick a farmer.'

Since the USDA rules just changed, and the state is providing leadership for a change, Beer imagines interest will be stirred locally.

Almost 70 individuals and organizations in Oregon have been working for the last three years to define and support farm-to-school activities in Oregon. 'Oregon is ahead of the national curve because volunteers, teachers, schools, students and administrators care so much about local agriculture, healthy foods and community connections,' said Schreiber.

State Reps. Tina Kotek (D-Portland) and Brian Clem (D-Salem) plan on re-introducing two bills during the 2009 session that would change the way lunch is served in Oregon schools. One bill would request that the state match a portion of federal dollars if districts purchase Oregon agricultural products, and the other would provide grants to start or maintain school gardens.

According to the National Farm-to-School Network, over 8,000 schools nationally have some type of farm-to-school program already in place.