Spotlight on Oregon Farm to School
Nearly 70% of schools in the state purchase Oregon grown food.
For every dollar allocated through Oregon’s Farm to School program for procurement of Oregon grown and processed foods, two dollars of economic activity is generated in the local economy. While that 2-for-1 doubling excludes milk and butter purchases, this research conducted by Ecotrust in the report The Impact of Seven Cents, is a powerful argument for the benefit of investing in farm to school activities. During the 2018-2019 school year, more than $17 million was put into the pockets of Oregon’s producers and distributors – sales which represent a significant market opportunity for growers, and a huge potential impact for rural livelihoods.
The work Oregon Aglink facilitates through the Adopt a Farmer program has always been, in the most literal sense, bringing the farm to school and the school to the farm. This two-way path through field trips and classroom visits leads to discussions around what is growing in Oregon, how and where it is being grown, who is doing the work to produce the many products consumed every day, and why those decisions are made year round on farms, ranches, and fishing boats throughout the state. These connections between students and producers fulfills the Aglink vision that Oregonians will share an informed understanding of the state’s agriculture.
In July 2019, Oregon House Bill 2579, the Farm to School Bill, was passed unanimously. It was a unique bill that tripled the funding for Oregon’s Farm to School Grants from $4.5 million to $15 million and expanded the grant program to include pre-school settings and summer meals, as well as new infrastructure grants for producers who are ready to sell to schools. The goal of this competitive grant program is to provide financial resources for Oregon farmers, ranchers, seafood harvesters, and processors with specific equipment and infrastructure needs, and who intend to sell food produced or processed in Oregon to schools.
Prior to the first legislation in 2018, farm to school was happening intermittently, but the legislative focus allowed for a ground-swell and a subsequent increase in interest, sales and improved health outcomes. Formed in 2006, the Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Network only took one year before a “Farm to School” position was created in the Oregon Department of Agriculture. By 2008, the Oregon Department of Education had a similar position, which made Oregon the first state in the country to support farm to school efforts through two state agencies. Dual agency coordination is critical for removing barriers and creating opportunities that push and pull Oregon agricultural products through the school food market.
A small pilot funding amount of $200,000 in 2011 gave 11 school districts in Oregon a “food transformation” with 87.5% of the fund buying Oregon grown foods to be served in meal programs and 12.5% dedicated to food, agriculture, and gardening based activities (EcoTrust Jan. 24, 2013). Funding was expanded in 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019 to continue program initiatives of procuring local food to be served in school cafeterias and through farm and school garden education.
“That’s what’s unique about farm-to-school programs,” says Michelle Markesteyn, PhD, currently serving as Oregon Aglink’s 2nd Vice President. She wrote the original bill that went through the legislature in 2011. “There’s a huge economic opportunity for Oregon agriculture and for kids.”
Careers in agriculture have also increased over time and agriculture programs in schools become an entry point for youth that may have never otherwise considered being in the wide variety of careers in agriculture. There are currently over 700 school gardens around the state from rural schools in eastern Oregon to large cities like Portland and Eugene.
“I think the ag community doesn’t necessarily grasp how insanely valuable it is economically,” adds Markestyn. “We are talking more than $17 million in sales, well more, and economic report show that it’s directly traceable to 401 of 406 economic sectors in the state by Bruce Soriety at OSU.”
Oregon’s Farm to School and School Garden Programs are a model for the rest of the country in a time where political division can cause major rifts. Bipartisan efforts in programs like these bring together both Republicans and Democrats, while also bridging the urban-rural-suburban-coastal-tribal divides. For example, as part of an Oregon Boat to School promotion, kids in Bend-LaPine School District met trawl fishermen in the classroom, learned about the resource fishing families provide, and enjoyed seafood at school lunch.
The fact that many Oregon farmers are unaware that a percentage of their produce is going toward school lunch programs is not surprising. According to Markestyn she considers it “not just a win, but the goal” that sourcing locally for schools and connecting youth to local agriculture is “just how we do business.”
“Now that we have institutionalized schools into distribution centers, that’s the goal,” she says. “It’s consistent and this is what we mean by making sourcing locally for schools a ‘norm’ and not the exception.”
Written by Katie Schrock
Knowing the diversity of the origin and processes behind food, fiber, and shelter helps everyone in Oregon appreciate their impact is part of Oregon Aglink’s vision statement. As the Adopt a Farmer program enters its 10th school year, amid a global pandemic, farmers, ranchers, and fishers will continue to connect with middle school students around the state virtually until on-farm field trips and in-person classroom visits are able to safely resume. If you’re an Oregon producer interested in participating in the Adopt a Farmer program, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. To connect with schools involved with the Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Network, email email@example.com.