April 20, 2007
By Mitch Lies
SALEM — Oregon schools will seek out Oregon-grown foods to fill breakfast and lunch plates under a package of bills that cleared two House committees last week.
House bills 3476, 3307 and 3185 received unanimous support April 10 from the House Education Innovation Subcommittee and a day later from the full House Education Committee. The bills now compete with hundreds of other programs for state funding in the Joint Ways and Means Committee.
"This is one of the first ideas I've seen where urban, rural, Democrat and Republican all believe this is a good idea," said Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, who introduced the package.
"This is Oregon farmers feeding Oregon kids," said Michelle Ratcliffe-Markesteyn of Portland State University.
Clem, a first-term lawmaker, said he thought of the idea to connect Oregon schools with Oregon agriculture while writing a campaign speech.
"I was thinking, 'What will I do if I'm elected?' And this is one of the things I came up with," he said.
The bills call for the state to break with longstanding tradition and appropriate general funds to Oregon's school lunch program.
Oregon is one of only a handful of states that does not put state funds into the school lunch program — a fact that prohibits the state from establishing an in-state purchase preference.
Under the bills, the state would spend 7 cents for each school meal — a provision that would provide the state flexibility to establish an in-state purchase preference and help fund additional costs associated with the local food purchases.
The programs advanced in the bills are expected to cost the state nearly $9 million over two years.
Under the current federal funding formula, the state is required to buy low-cost meals through federal programs.
Dalton Hobbs, an assistant director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, said the program could have far-reaching effects on agriculture.
"This is groundbreaking," he said.
Peter Truitt of Truitt Brothers food processing in Salem agreed.
"By opening up the school food-service market to local processors like us," he said, "the benefits would extend deep into the Oregon economy."
Truitt said he has never considered schools as a viable market due primarily to the rock-bottom prices paid by schools for food.
"Today, school food service is not even on our map," he said. "It's at the bottom of our priority list. House Bill 3476 could change that for us."
HB3476 and HB3307 provide schools the option to establish an in-state purchase preference to fill breakfast and lunch menus. The bills call on the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Department of Agriculture to administer the program. Each agency would dedicate one position to the program.
HB3185 establishes a grant fund that schools could tap to plant gardens for educational purposes.
Mitch Lies is based in Salem.
His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org