Starting this fall, many elementary students in the Hillsboro School District will have fresh, locally-grown veggies in their school lunches thanks to the recent passage of the Oregon “Farm to School” bill.

In July, House Bill 2649 won final approval from the Oregon Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. John Kitzhaber. The legislation allocates approximately $500,000 to help school districts around the state purchase local fruits and vegetables. The grants will connect schools with area farmers, enabling schools to provide students with Oregon berries, beef, wheat and vegetables.

Last Friday, Hillsboro school officials learned the district had been approved for a Farm to School grant package totaling $40,000.

“It’s great news,” said Beth Graser, communications director for the district. by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - Thanks to new legislation passed by the Oregon Legislature, farmers who sell their fresh, locally-grown agricultural products at the Hillsboro Farmers Market will now also be able to sell produce directly to the Hillsboro School District.

The grant extends over two years — through the end of the 2015 school year — meaning the school district will have $20,000 each year to go toward purchasing fresh local produce.

Graser said two elementary schools — Free Orchards and Eastwood — have been singled out for the program over the first two years.

“Those schools were chosen because they have a high rate of free and reduced lunch-eligible students,” she explained.

State Rep. Ben Unger (D-Hillsboro), one of the co-sponsors of the Farm to School legislation, strongly believes in the concept — and not just because his family makes a living from farming.

“These are the kind of programs state government should be creating and supporting,” explained Unger, whose family owns and operates Unger Farms, Inc., in Cornelius. “It creates jobs, it improves nutrition and it educates kids about agriculture and health.”

In early July, once the school district was made aware funds were available, Laura Conroy, manager of the Hillsboro Farmers’ Market, submitted a grant proposal on behalf of the district.

The Farmers’ Market, which works with about 70 area farmers, will deliver the crops the school district purchases. Because the organization will play a significant role in helping get the food from the farmers to the students, a portion of the grant — about $4,000 — will go to the Farmers’ Market.

“Conroy has a relationship with local farmers, and she will coordinate with farmers to get the produce into those schools,” Graser said.

The school district and the Hillsboro Farmers’ Market will work together to target when certain crops are available in a quantity sizable enough to adequately feed students at the two schools.

“The school district has let us know what crops it wants,” Conroy said. “We’ll talk to the farmers about who has those crops, and we’ll buy them.”

Conroy pointed out that local crops will be available even in the winter.

“There are fresh crops we can grow in Oregon year-round,” said Conroy. “We will always have a crop they (the school district) are planning for in season. The farmers will let us know what crops are available.”

“I’m coordinating with Laura (Conroy) on food items for the schools,” said Cindy Longway, the school district’s nutrition services director. “We will offer items like tomatillos, cucumbers, romaine, cherry tomatoes and berries throughout the school year.”

Also, five times during the year, representatives of the Farmers’ Market will visit the two schools to provide students with information about the various food items they may see in a particular season.

“We’ll talk to kids about the benefits of eating zucchini, for example,” Conroy explained. “Kids are more likely to want to eat something they’ve been learning about.”

Conroy said the reaction from farmers has been extremely positive.

“We’re ecstatic, and farmers are excited to finally have a convenient way to get our crops into local schools,” Conroy said. “The Tualatin Valley can generate so much healthy food, delicious food and quality food. To know it will go into the tummies of our most precious commodities — our children — is wonderful.”

Unger said he sees long range benefits to the program that go beyond simply helping to boost revenues for farmers in the area.

“I like the analogy of ‘this is a teach someone to fish’ type program,” Unger said. “We’re changing behavior long term that will make us healthier and happier, and also benefit our economy.”

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