June 27, 2007
As every nutritionist knows, improving your diet is not just about what you subtract from it, but also what you add. The 2007 Oregon Legislature did a brilliant job of subtracting.
House Bill 2650, signed into law by Gov. Ted Kulongoski last week, requires schools to stop selling those highly processed concoctions that barely qualify as "food." The new law spells out nutrition standards for foods and beverages sold in student stores, vending machines and cafeteria snack lines. The next step is to add more Oregon-grown, Oregon-made products to those cafeteria menus.
Oregon fruits, vegetables and other products could provide a bonanza of health benefits for overweight Oregon schoolchildren, and new vitality, as well, for some Oregon farms and ranches. There are dozens of Oregon products kids could consume every day, including Oregon beef. So why don't more of our schools feature these foods regularly?
Under the current setup, many cannot afford to do so. They're also constrained by an almost unfathomable welter of bureaucratic regulations, which make it very difficult for Oregon growers and food processors to negotiate stable contracts with local school districts. Truitt Bros. in Salem, for instance, ships green beans to school systems in Texas, Georgia, Florida and Alabama. But, as Peter Truitt told the Oregon Legislature recently, Oregon kids rarely get to taste what he, naturally, considers to be the finest green beans in the world.
It shouldn't work that way. Price will always be important, but today price and commodity surpluses dictate the school lunch market, with very little room for considerations of quality, freshness, the healthfulness of the food or its place of origin. A statewide coalition has been working hard to change the priorities and improve the system.
Clearly, some important changes are going to be needed at the federal level. The federal government puts roughly $72 million a year into feeding Oregon schoolchildren, and it ought to be possible to devote some regular percentage of that to purchasing Oregon or Northwest foods. Yet geographical preferences today don't figure into the equation.
Our state also has to do its own part to bridge the gap between farm and school. One hopeful sign: The state Department of Agriculture plans to hire a coordinator devoted to developing the farm-to-school market. "This is critically important because there are increasing calls… to source and supply locally," says the department's assistant director, Dalton Hobbs.
Subtract junk food from Oregon schools, add Oregon favorites to school menus to teach a new generation to eat better, and multiply farmers' profits in the bargain? Sounds like a brilliant solution for kids, parents and the state's ag industry. It's tough to argue with this math.
For more information, check out ecotrust.org/farmtoschool/ or contact Ecotrust Food & Farms at 503-476-6080.