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Ecotrust in the News

The Oregonian
June 3, 2007
By Amy Hsuan

Homegrown freshness on menu for Oregon schools

Changing social values push schools to improve nutrition and buy more food locally, but who will pick up the check?

Evolution is transforming Oregon school lunches, as the movement toward calorie-conscious fare adds another goal: becoming homegrown.

Soon, only edibles with Oregon origins could make the menu, as "sustainability" seeps into school kitchens alongside other social values.

One of four legislative bills backed by high-powered health and conservation advocates strikes much of the fat and sugar from schools. It already has cleared the House and Senate and awaits Gov. Ted Kulongoski's expected signature. The three others aim to reshape not only what Oregon children eat, but also where that food originates.

But healthful eating and environmentally friendly habits come with a cost, one that's counted in nickels and dimes but adds up to millions of dollars statewide. Next year, many Oregon public school districts plan to increase their meal prices by about 5 percent, citing the expense of fresh foods on top of burgeoning fuel and labor costs.

Selling items at lunch has become a business for schools statewide, one that ultimately relies on catering to kids' tastes. Now, school leaders and other advocates are asking taxpayers, lawmakers and parents to pay for a revolution to transform the cafeteria into a classroom.

"Food is not just about nutrition anymore," says Kristy Obbink, Portland Public Schools' nutrition services director. "Healthy food is also about the environment and other societal issues. This is about what we eat, but also how we view it."

Lunch economics

In 1946, the National School Lunch Program was born of a problem: Childhood malnutrition depleted the military.

Since then, researchers have pointed to the program's importance in studies connecting nutrition and the ability to learn. Lawmakers have seized on it to address childhood obesity.

About half of the state's 563,000 students buy lunch through the program, which sets strict nutritional guidelines but allows local districts to set the price. Each year, roughly half of the almost 50 million meals served in Oregon come at little or no cost to students who are low-income.

"We decided long ago that providing nutritious school food was a social obligation," says Deborah Kane, vice president of Food and Farm program of Ecotrust, a conservation group. "Now is the key time to ask what is the role of school food — a cost or an investment?"

Oregon is one of a handful of states that doesn't give school districts extra money to feed students. The federal government pumps in about $72 million each year. The state pays a minimum match of $2 million, or a little more than 2.7 percent of the total budget.

The result, school leaders say, is that most Oregon lunch programs rely on selling what students want to prop up profits. They can't take money from classrooms, so they take what they can for free, from government commodities to the ready-made marketing of corporate vendors.

There's little debate about the need for good eating habits, but with lucrative items being slashed from menus, the money will have to come from elsewhere, nutrition service directors say.

"We've created a system where there's pressure for the child's dollar," says Chris Bosak, a former Portland Public Schools director who works for Land O'Lakes to create new school products. "Unfortunately, the things that sell are sugar, salt and fat."

Costs, prices will rise

Global economic forces have touched even cafeteria food.

Implementing the state's new wellness guidelines will mean buying more expensive fresh fruits and vegetables and costly new low-fat products, and catering to kids' increasingly sophisticated tastes.

Next year, many districts will hike their lunch prices. In the Beaverton School District, lunch ranges from $2.10 to $2.90 and will rise by a dime to 15 cents. It's the second price increase in three years.

Even so, Susan Barker, Beaverton's nutrition services director, is left with only a dollar a meal to buy actual food. Labor, transportation and keeping the kitchen lights on eat up most of her $11 million budget. And the things kids now want in their cafeteria are crab cakes and hummus plates, among the dozen other options they expect daily.

"We operate on quarters and pennies," Barker says. "We really have to count those half-pennies. And the students are our customers."

Local food sources

A new awareness enlivens the debate as Oregon lawmakers follow other states in considering legislation they hope will plant other social values. Farm-to-school partnerships, which promise fuel savings, better-tasting produce and a boost to local economies, are cropping up nationwide.

"One of the drivers for putting energy behind what kids eat in school is the obesity epidemic," says state Rep. Tina Kotek, D-Portland. "The challenge with this is can we get a little seed money to start off?"

Three proposals have yet to be voted on in either the House or the Senate. One bill would give districts as much as 7 cents a meal for using Oregon products. Another would give mini-grants to cultivate school gardens. A third would create a new Department of Agriculture job to oversee a partnership with educators.

Combined, the three bills would cost the state about $10 million a year.

Parents agree with the values, but they also see a drain on their checkbooks.

Leah Van Winkle, a registered dietitian, has two daughters in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District, which has some of Oregon's highest lunch prices and is one of the few that receives money — $57,000 — from the district's general fund. Next year, lunch prices will go up, and range from $2.35 for elementary students to $3.25 for high-schoolers.

"Fifteen cents makes a difference, it's already so out of whack with what's out there," says Van Winkle, who spends at least $70 a month on lunch for her third-grader and sixth-grader. "I'm definitely willing to pay a premium for local produce and convenience, but I don't want to feel like I'm being fleeced either. We'll probably be bringing lunch from home more often."

But many of those supporting the proposed partnership between the Oregon departments of Agriculture and Education say the investment will pay off in the local economy.

"For growers, it's challenging to find markets to sell their produce," says Laura Barton, an Agriculture Department trade development manager. "It's a practical solution."

For the past three years, the Bend-La Pine School District has had an active relationship with local farmers. Students eat blueberries, strawberries and cantaloupe from local grower Jeff Rosenblad, who owns the 25-acre Happy Harvest Farms.

Rosenblad makes sure his prices are competitive with wholesalers. And, the district doesn't have to pay for shipping because Rosenblad drops off the produce himself.

"I've been right in there competition-wise," Rosenblad says. "Sometimes, it's even better. Once in a while, I'll lower the price."

School leaders across the state have started forging relationships with local growers and companies. The face-to-face contact has advantages: They can get custom products and goods that the big corporate suppliers won't provide.

The Beaverton School District gets a low-fat breakfast bar from Fairlight Bakery in Vancouver. In Gresham, blueberries, broccoli and milk come from Portland-area farms.

But there also are disadvantages. Working with local farmers and companies doesn't always guarantee a steady supply. In Bend, local produce makes up only a fraction of its 15,000 meals each day.

Improved taste

Seventh-grader Athena Kegley at Beaverton's Whitford Middle School recognizes the importance of more healthful foods, but she doesn't want to stomach the low-fat sour cream.

"There's more healthy choices, but it still doesn't taste that great," Athena says. "Taste is still the most important thing."

That's why some school leaders are bringing lessons into the cafeteria, hoping to win fickle customers by educating them about where the food originates.

Portland Public Schools has launched an ambitious experiment at the elementary schools. Over the past months, 2,200 pounds of local squash, 2,000 pounds of asparagus from Canby and thousands of potatoes from Joseph, cut by hand, have been served.

Cooking 40,000 meals a day from scratch will take a lot of money, training and new equipment for kitchen workers no longer adept at producing anything but heat-and-serve items.

But better-tasting vegetables and a lot of education could increase student consumption of vegetables and fruits.

Already, some see a payoff. At Sunset Elementary in West Linn, french fries have been wiped from the menu and the baked chicken nuggets are no larger than gumballs.

Second-graders Jessica Prendez and Hallie Reed opt for vegetable soup and apple slices. They've been learning about healthful food in gym class.

"I picked the soup because it's healthy," Jessica says. "I learned that if you eat healthy food you get stronger and your brain works better."

Hallie chimes in: "I used to not run very fast. But now that I'm eating healthy food, I run a lot faster."

FACTBOX: School food bills in Salem

This year, four bills were considered by the Oregon Legislature that would dramatically change what foods public schools serve and where they are grown, manufactured and processed:

House Bill 2650: Passed by House and Senate, and expected to be signed by the governor. Establishes nutrition standards for foods sold outside of the federal meal program: snacks, entrees and beverages. It also makes nutrition standards consistent across Oregon. The law takes effect for all district-prepared foods in 2009-10; for all other foods in the 2008-09 school year. Any added cost would probably fall on school districts, which have not determined what the impact would be.

The remainder of the House bills have yet to be voted on. They could be considered before the session is set to end June 30.

HB3307: Would create a partnership between the departments of Agriculture and Education that would create a statewide farm-to-school program, and create a position in the Agriculture Department to oversee the program. The program would match school districts with Oregon growers, ranchers, food manufacturers and processors to supply food for school lunches and go into effect July 1. Estimated cost is $175,000.

HB3476: School districts would receive as much as 7 cents a meal from the state to purchase Oregon agricultural products for school meals. Effective for the 2007 to 2009 biennium. Estimated cost is $8.64 million.

HB3185: Would award small grants for school gardens under the Oregon Department of Education and establishes education-based garden programs as well as other instructional projects in agriculture and food. Must be integrated in school wellness policies. Would take effect July 1. No cost estimate.

Amy Hsuan: 503-294-5954; amyhsuan@news.oregonian.com

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