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The East Oregonian
December 20, 2008

Bill to add $22M to school lunches

Farm to School initiative aiming to put Oregon food in Oregon schools

Anyone who has eaten a public school lunch knows: It may not be the most delicious meal in town, but it gets the job done.

Now, envision this: Eastern Oregon public schools serving potatoes grown in Hermiston, cheese made on the Oregon coast and beef raised in the Wallowa Mountains. Sound too good to be true? Perhaps, but the state legislature will soon consider a bill that would bring that vision a step closer to reality.

Known so far as the 2009 Farm to School bill, it asks the legislature to spend $22 million to supplement school lunch programs. The bill would add 15 cents toward every lunch and 7 cents toward every breakfast that is served in Oregon public schools.

The catch is that schools who wish to participate in the program must use the money to purchase Oregon-produced food. Furthermore, in order to qualify for the extra 15 or 7 cents, schools must prove they are spending an equal amount of national school food program funds on Oregon foods.

Currently, the national school lunch and breakfast program reimburses schools for most of the meals they serve — typically, it pays about $2.35 per lunch. Oregon is one of a handful of states that does not supplement the national program with state money.

Advocates say the legislation would do two things: Bring Oregon up to speed with other states in terms of funding school food programs, and jump-start local food programs throughout the state. The requirement that schools use a portion of national program funds within Oregon will also boost the state's agricultural economy, they say.

"The Oregon investment would stimulate an equivalent federal investment, which is, in my mind, brilliant," said Deborah Kane, the vice president of food and farms at Ecotrust.org.

The farm-to-school movement has been a big hit in Oregon's urban areas, and several schools are already experimenting with the idea. The Portland public school system, for example, has a Harvest of the Month, in which students are served farm fresh fruits and vegetables twice a month from February to June.

In the "local lunch" program, Portland schools offer a meal once a month that is made entirely from Oregon-grown foods, such as cheese quesadillas made from Tillamook cheese, tortillas made locally with Oregon flour and Oregon salsa. A $290,000 grant from the Kaiser Permanente Community Fund subsidizes the local lunch program, which highlights one of the problems with serving local food: It costs more than buying food from traditional distributors.

Reps. Brian Clem, D-Salem, and Tina Kotek, D-Portland, are sponsoring the bill, which is now in legislative council. Because it is so new, school administrators in Eastern Oregon were reluctant to comment on it.

"Once we understand the full implications of the bill, we can decide whether to participate," said Heidi Sipe, the superintendent of the Umatilla School District. "We always strive to provide quality, nutritious food … If it's feasible, we'd be happy to participate."

Fred Maiocco, the superintendent of the Hermiston School district, said he was not comfortable giving an opinion on the bill since the state legislature is not in session yet.

"What I will tell you is, Hermiston is an agriculture-based community, and we have a great relationship with our farmers," he said. "We are very supportive of anything that would be beneficial to them."

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