Schoolchildren get half their daily calories from food they eat at school. Parents of students in Oregon can feel proud that their kids are seeing healthy and local foods on their cafeteria trays through the Oregon Farm to School Program.
“We have one of the most popular and well-established programs for farm to school in the country,” says Amy Gilroy, the Farm to School Program manager at the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “Oregonians care about healthy kids and supporting their local farmers. Farm to School helps connect these two values by helping schools find and source Oregon products, developing creative recipes and unique menu items, and helping kids learn where their food comes from through school garden education.”
Many schools set up tasting tables in school cafeterias, highlight specific Oregon crops or unique Oregon products in their lunch menus, and work with local producers to teach kids about careers in agriculture and where their food comes from.
There are more than a half a million schoolchildren in the state. In the past 10 years, the program has grown from reaching 25 school districts to more than 130 across the state. That translates to more than 230,000 students served, 600 school gardens established, 170 Oregon companies involved and an average of 20 percent of school food budgets spent on Oregon-grown or -processed products. According to estimates, the program has generated more than 100 jobs and $20 million in statewide economic impact.
But the results extend way beyond the numbers. With more than 1 in 5 Oregon children at risk of being overweight and 1 in 3 at risk for diabetes, the opportunity for students to enjoy fresh, healthy food and to learn about nutrition has a far-reaching impact.
One of the programs managed through the Oregon Department of Agriculture that has been instrumental in Farm to School is FoodCorps, a national service program that trains AmeriCorps leaders to connect kids in underserved communities to healthy food in schools. Last year in Oregon, FoodCorps service members maintained 26 school gardens and reached more than 16,000 students, introducing them to more than 100 new foods.
Other innovative initiatives include the creation of educational materials like the Oregon Harvest for School toolkit, which provides activities and promotional posters featuring 36 of the state’s specialty crops.
Promotional and educational efforts are designed to motivate kids to develop healthy eating habits and help them make good choices throughout their lifetimes.
Research suggests that kids need, on average, 12 exposures to a new food item before they will select it on their own. As examples, school gardens provide those hands-on opportunities, and tasting tables give kids a chance to try a lot of different foods. These activities help school districts get a sense for what new Oregon foods kids will like before they make purchasing decisions – so it gives them a chance to save money and get products on the lunch line that children already like and enjoy eating.
Jeanette and Brent Thompson, who own T 7 Ranch in Haines, believe in the goals of the Farm to School program and support them with time, talent and products. The Thompsons donate and sell beef to many local schools, offer equipment to help build and maintain school gardens, and host school groups at the ranch.
“It’s important for kids to know where their food comes from and to have a hand in growing it,” Jeannette Thompson says. “This program provides those opportunities.”
From Boat to School
Bornstein Seafoods is another active program partner. In 2012, the company helped establish the Boat to School program, which began in the Bend-La Pine school district in Central Oregon and now extends to the Portland, Pendleton, La Grande and Seaside districts.
Not only has Bornstein developed special cuts of fish to meet school lunch protein requirements, but they also work with kitchen teams on how best to prepare and serve wild, sustainably caught seafood so kids will try and enjoy it.
Christa Svensson, a former Bornstein’s export sales account manager, champions the program.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity for districts to get local food on their menus and for children from all socioeconomic backgrounds to try something new. Some might like rockfish tacos; others shrimp fettuccine. Some might not like either, but they all have a chance to taste different preparations of fish and learn more about how Oregon supplies premier seafood here and around the world.”
Svensson explains that through the Farm to School program’s educational grants, students can learn even more. The Oregon Albacore Commission received a $15,000 grant to develop educational materials to tell the story of Oregon’s commercial fisheries. Students in Seaside got a real flavor of Oregon seafood from tastings, take-home dinners kits, field trips and activity books.
“People care deeply about Oregon producers and kids. This is what I love about the Farm to School program,” Gilroy says. “It looks different in every community across the state.”