September 17, 2008
Farmers, food producers, grocery retailers and government officials congregated at Atkinson Elementary in Southeast Portland on Aug. 27 to cheer a grant from the Kaiser Permanente Community Fund and the Northwest Health Foundation. These foundations will subsidize approximately 2,640,000 meals with the funds needed to serve more Oregon-grown and processed foods in Portland Public School and Gervais School districts.
The grant, secured by Ecotrust's Food & Farms program, will bolster existing efforts to bring more regionally produced food into two distinct school districts in the immediate school year, and kick-off a six-month study to measure the impact of nourishing the minds and bodies of young school children with fresh seasonal produce and locally processed foods. This program also allows the dollars spent to feed Oregon students back into the local economy. The study will provide a rigorous test of policy concepts originally introduced in the 2007 Oregon legislative session to reimburse schools for purchasing Oregon agricultural products. Data gathered from the pilot will provide the 2009 Oregon State Legislature with hard evidence to consider a similar proposal this January.
"The generous grant will allow us to start making a difference now," said Michelle Ratcliffe, Ph.D., Farm to School Manager for Ecotrust Food & Farms Program.
The expanded Harvest of the Month program will launch in September in the state's largest district, Portland Public Schools, and in the smaller, rural Gervais School District. The two distinct districts were selected for the initial study based on their significant populations of vulnerable students, measured by high percentages of children eligible for free and reduced meals.
In addition, the nutrition service directors in both districts have demonstrated farm-to-school leadership at the local, state and national levels and are committed to program execution.
"These two diverse school districts were chosen to study how different procurement regulations may apply and how agricultural operations will need to be scaled to meet the food demand of each district," said Ratcliffe.
"We anticipate learning how to scale this program to fit any number of school districts across Oregon in coming years."
In preparation for the new program, Portland and Gervais school food service directors spent months in the field — literally — forging relationships with local farmers willing to grow fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables for harvest during the school's calendar year, or frozen in peak season, in the case with Oregon berries. They also knocked on doors of Oregon food manufacturers capable of developing specialty items using local ingredients for the center of the lunch plate.
"Gervais schools are surrounded by agriculture and we consider local farmers our business partners," said Clare Columbus, food services administrator for Gervais. "Local growers never knew the school district could be a viable customer."