Oregon's Farm to School programs lead the nation with new funding

This is a news release from Upstream Public Health and Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Network:

All Oregon school districts can receive extra funds to buy and serve local foods, starting this fall, thanks to the Oregon legislature. Oregon has been a national leader in Farm to School and School Garden programs, and this will be another first: offering funds to all districts that participate in the federal school lunch program, not just the "winners" of competitive grants.

The legislature provided a total of $4,519,189 for this popular program for 2015-17, including a $3.3 million increase in the end-of-session spending bill, SB 5507. Several key program details were also revised through SB 501. Both bills passed the Senate and House on Monday (7/6/15), in the final hours of the 2015 legislative session.

New funding will also be available for food-based, agriculture-based and garden-based education programs, to help kids get excited about fresh and healthy foods.

"Kids will do many things with beets if you serve them in a cafeteria," says Kasandra Griffin of Upstream Public Health. "They make great projectiles, they make great face paint. But if a kid grows a beet in a school garden, they will actually eat beets when they are served in the cafeteria or at home, because it reminds them of the time they grew a beet themselves, and they liked it."

Supporters tout a wide range of benefits of the Farm to School and School Garden program, from reducing hunger, to improving nutrition and reducing the childhood diabetes epidemic, to supporting Oregon's economy.

"Farm to School programs help farmers, processors and rural Oregon," said House Republican Leader Mike McLane. "I'm proud to support this innovative program that supports our communities while also providing students with healthy and fresh Oregon-grown food."

Representative McLane was a co-sponsor of HB 2721, the stand-alone version of the Farm to School Bill, before it was folded into SB 5507 and 501.

The focus on local can transform the buying habits of schools. According to Megan Kemple of the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition, "Oregon schools spend over $45 million in federal dollars on school lunch ingredients, every year. By investing in Farm to School, we can encourage school districts to change their buying behavior and keep more of that federal money circulating in Oregon. And that makes a big difference in the bottom lines of farmers here in Lane County, and around the state."

Jane Gullet, the Nutrition Director of Yamhill-Carlton School District, is proof of that type of behavior change. Her district received one of the grants for 2013-15. "The grant changed the way I think about buying food," she said.

"I never thought about this before, but now the first thing I ask any vendor is whether their products are local, or if they have a local alternative. I'm aiming to serve 75% local products."

"Local" is defined as anything produced or processed in the state of Oregon. Over half of the food dollars from the 2013-15 grants were spent on produce, especially apples, pears, and berries, but other local foods also qualify, including meat, seafood, grains, dairy, and even processed foods. Some of Gullet's favorite local products include vegetarian chili from Truitt Family Foods, fresh lean ground beef from Carlton Farms, low-fat vanilla Tillamook yogurt, and whole-wheat buns and breadsticks from Teeny Bakery.

Peter Truitt, of Truitt Family Foods, produces the chili that Gullet buys. "We love selling our Salem-made foods to Oregon schools. It feels good knowing we are providing the nutrition kids need to learn. As Oregon's Farm to School activities have increased, so has the demand for healthy, locally processed food. This creates an attractive market for farmers and food processors. At Truitt Family Foods, we are developing new hummus and bean dips for the school market, and will be able to hire more workers as this business grows."

The amount of funding available per school district will be based on the number of students eating school lunches (per USDA's National School Lunch Program) there the previous year. All schools are eligible - public, private, charter. Other program changes in HB 2721 include allowing the schools to use the "food" funds for any school meals (not just lunch), separating the funding for educational activities from the funding for food purchasing, and making non- profit partners and commodity commissions eligible to apply for the educational portion.

This year's program expansion is a particularly sweet victory for Representative Brian Clem, D-Salem, who has been championing Farm to School and School Garden bills every session since 2007. "Our goal ever since 2007 has been to provide funding for every school in the state to buy local products," says Clem. "It took us a few years, but we made it. With this step, we continue to lead the nation in showing how Farm to School and School Garden programs should be done, and how much they can benefit kids, farmers, and everyone in between."

Oregon Department of Education manages the grant program, in collaboration with the Oregon Department of Agriculture. They will post updated information soon for schools and other partners: www.ode.state.or.us/go/f2sgardens.

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