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Ecotrust in the News

Capital Press
March 30, 2007

Farm-to-school programs need more support

It's time to step up to the table — and influence what is on the school lunch plate.

Kudos to the politicians and groups, ranging from agricultural to conservation organization, who seek to develop a Farm to School program. There are various House bills working through the Oregon Legislature to encourage schools to not only use healthier foods, but to specifically serve Oregon-produced agricultural products.

Washington and California already have Farm to School programs in place. Idaho does not.

According to Ecotrust, one of the organizations encouraging legislators to back these bills, "In Oregon, 43 percent of the meals we serve in schools go to children participating in USDA's free or reduced program. For many of these kids, school lunch may be their primary source of food and nutrients all day. These bills would ensure that Oregon's most vulnerable children have equal access to great food."

One only needed to look around the state during spring vacation to see the truth of that statement. Various counties advertised in newspapers as well as on signs near schools and churches that free school lunches would be available.

It's sad that while so many play up that spring break is a time for exotic vacations like Disneyland for children, the truth is this week means a lot of kids may be starving without programs like this to support them.

HB 3307 and HB 3476 work to support students being able to consume more fruits and vegetables in schools, as well as eat other healthy Oregon food products for their school and breakfast programs.

While the bills are still being worked on, the proposals include that the Department of Education would help establish this program and would "reimburse school districts' food services fund up to 15 cents for every meal served as part of the National School Lunch Program and/or Breakfast Program for the purpose of utilizing Oregon agricultural products."

The Department of Agriculture would also serve a valuable role: It would help school districts identify food products that could be used and also sources and suppliers of these food products. The department would also help develop procurement strategies for these foods, and link supplies with primary and secondary manufacturers in Oregon that can help meet these guidelines.

One of the House bills encourages the education department to establish a school garden program, awarding grants to school districts to do various things such as have students help plant, tend, harvest and consume garden produce. There is a strong educational component to help the students understand more about agriculture and food: organizations such as Agriculture in the Classroom, 4-H, Master Gardeners, and FFA would be involved, and there would also be field trips to farms, food processors and food manufacturers.

Oregon is one of only a few states that do not have a program like this encouraging local food be used in schools. As Oregon develops a Farm to School program, it is looking closely and adopting great ideas from California and other states that have also seen the value in local foods being served in schools.

Healthier children should be a top priority for society, but this type of program is beneficial in so many other ways.

Programs like these help build better bridges between consumers and the agricultural producers , which leads to increased sales for farmers and helps make them more sustainable.

The agricultural community should throw its support behind these programs and the proposed legislation in Oregon, but also work with other groups to educate consumers about the importance of such a program.

Even in Washington, which has an established Farm to School program, only two of the state's 296 school districts participate, or 19 out of 2,209 schools, according to farmtoschool.org. In California, where 48 percent of student participate in free or reduced lunch programs, only 30 of 986 school districts are involved in Farm to School, according to that website.

The more the public understands and supports why it's needed for the kids as well as the farmers, the more the politicians — no matter what party or community they represent — will also support programs like this.

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