April 12, 2007
By Peter Wong
Green beans from the farm that Doug Roth runs make their way to the Truitt Bros. cannery in Salem.
Blueberries and marionberries from his G&C Farms Inc. off Silverton Road northeast of Salem are sold fresh, frozen, and in pies under the Willamette Valley Fruit brand. "I want people to know about them so they will buy them," Roth said.
But few of those products find their way directly into the public schools near where they are grown.
Three bills, approved Wednesday by the House Education Committee and pending in the Legislature's budget committee, could lead to increased awareness of agriculture by students, greater participation in school gardens, and more sales of fresh and processed Oregon food to Oregon schools.
Roth said he favors anything that will further those goals.
"There is a big push to buy local, so this package fits in with that," he said. "I know that environmentally conscious people are pushing 'buy local' so that we don't have to truck produce from everywhere and spend a lot of money on fuel."
Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, is the chief sponsor of two bills. One would match school districts interested in buying locally produced foods with growers able to supply them, and encourage other farm-to-school ties. The other would award small grants for school gardens and other agriculture and food-based learning projects.
Clem said he proposed one of those ideas during his 2006 campaign, independent of an effort by the Oregon Department of Agriculture to include money for it in its 2007-09 budget. Gov. Ted Kulongoski's request for the agency, however, excluded the item.
"I said we ought to start looking at using our state food dollars to support local agriculture," said Clem, who is a member of the education committee.
"We in Marion County are the greatest producer of agricultural products in Oregon, so with the resources we have, I think it makes sense to have our schools renew that connection with agriculture."
Peter Truitt, the president of the Salem cannery that employs 700 to 1,200 people, said green beans and other foods are shipped to out-of-state schools that have developed relationships with his company.
But for various reasons, he told lawmakers Tuesday, "we don't even bother to sell our products to Oregon schools… These bills could lead to purchases that could put Oregon schools on our marketing track."
Clare Columbus is the food-service director for the Gervais School District. She said that such relationships could be cultivated if schools got help, and she mentioned a recent contact.
"The farmer had not looked at us as a viable customer," she said. "But we were not looking for something for free."
Michelle Markesteyn Ratcliffe of Ecotrust, a Portland organization that promotes more regional self-sufficiency in food and other products, said all that is needed is someone to match both sides.
"Both suppliers and demand are ready for this program," she said.
A third bill, proposed by Rep. Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and others would pay schools 7 cents for each meal served in the federal lunch and breakfast programs.
The additional $8.6 million, which would be Oregon's first-ever supplemental aid to those programs, would allow schools to buy local produce and processed foods. Federal regulations restrict how districts can spend federal money, but not on what states set aside for those programs.
Deborah Kane, an Ecotrust vice president for food and farms, said the $2.35 that schools get per meal for lunch programs shrinks to $1 for food once overhead costs are accounted for.
"A dollar is not enough," Kane said. "This would allow us to fund school lunches adequately and buy more Oregon products."
pwong@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6745