Oregon’s farm to school efforts are among the strongest in the nation, bolstered by local farmers, ranchers, fishers, and food processors who have worked hard to develop strong relationships with schools. As part of National Farm to School Month in October, the Oregon Department of Agriculture is recognizing six producers statewide who are dedicated to providing nutritious food to schools and engaging kids as part of the process.
“We have a lot of commitment from our school districts to work with their local producers and vice-versa,” says Amy Gilroy, ODA’s Farm to School Program manager. “Many producers believe deeply in providing healthy, local food to those school districts as well as connecting on the farm with kids through field trips and other activities.”
The win-win relationship between school districts and producers is based on trust and the desire to work together. Schools are able to count on a reliable supply of local food. Producers realize the schools represent a stable market for them.
Oregon has long been a national leader in farm to school efforts, possessing one of the most well funded programs in the country. Consistent support from the state legislature has created a program that provides healthy meals for kids while putting money in the pockets of Oregon producers.
“Just in the last few years, the program has grown from being able to serve about 25 school districts in the state to about 140 school districts,” says Gilroy. “That is very remarkable.”
The Farm to School Program reaches almost half of the 500,000 kids in Oregon public schools. With kids getting about half of their daily calories at school these days, farm to school is one way to ensure those kids are getting a healthy meal.
Oregon has historically been one of the states that spends the highest percentage of its school meals budget on purchasing local foods. Sales are increasing. Last year, school districts in Oregon spent about $14 million on local fruits, vegetables, seafood, meats, and grains. That translates into producers capturing more of the school food service dollar.
Now in its second year, the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School Producer Awards pay tribute to those who have gone above and beyond to strengthen that relationship between kids and schools with what’s being locally produced. The award program recognizes the contributions producers make to farm to school programs in their community– from putting local food on the lunch line to bringing kids to the farms and teaching them where their food comes from.
Farm to School Producer Award winners are being recognized for providing a sizable amount of what they grow onto the menu of local schools. Gordon Key of Key Family Fruit Farm in Milton-Freewater is meeting the needs of the Hermiston School District. This past school year, the district purchased more than 36,000 pounds of plums, pluots, and apples from Key Farms.
“Many schools are hosting farmers and serving a lunch where all, if not most, of the food is locally sourced,” says Gilroy. “There will be many events shining a spotlight on what is done to serve Oregon food in the school lunch program as well as events connected to a lot of the school garden education programs. One of my favorite parts of my job is sitting down to a school lunch that has delicious and health foods sourced from Oregon. I’m not sure how many people know just how hard producers and schools work to make that happen.”