Every day, Julie Mack makes decisions about how to feed the 6,700 students enrolled in the Centennial School District in Gresham, Oregon. Her choices — and the choices of school districts everywhere — are often limited by tight budgets, lack of infrastructure, strict national meal standards, and sometimes, picky customers. But for the past two years, things have been looking brighter and tasting better.
Julie has brought more local foods into the cafeteria to expand food choices and help support local food producers, thanks in part to a $1.2 million state-funded farm to school grant program.
Ecotrust made the economic and public health case that helped establish that grant program. We also co-founded a vibrant statewide network of over 400 schools, farmers, businesses, state agencies, and other partners to build community around Oregon’s farm to school programs.
And we work directly with Julie, among many others, to help school districts build partnerships with small and mid-sized food producers to transform their menus.
“Ag of The Middle” operations — those too large to sell directly to consumers and too small or differentiated to sell on the commodity markets — are exactly the type needed to serve regional institutions. But these businesses have been disappearing at alarming rates in the last 15 years. The number of mid-market operations earning between $50,000 and $500,000 dropped 18 percent between 1997 and 2007, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. By building connections and expanding markets, we can help these important regional producers return to viability.
Our farm to school programs also target vulnerable children and families — populations in preschools and low-income school districts.
“We see school lunch as the gateway to critical changes in our food system.”
We take this multi-tiered approach — from local and state to regional and national — because we believe it creates the most far-reaching and long-lasting impacts. As the eight-state Western Regional Lead for the National Farm to School Network, we share what we learn from school districts, farmers, and legislators with our partners across the region and the country. As we learn from each other, we accelerate the rate of positive change.
In fact, we see school lunch as the gateway to critical changes in our food system, writ large.
Because public schools serve all students, no matter their family income, and collectively have enormous purchasing power, schools can lead a sea change away from business as usual and towards a new economy: one that offers fresh, healthy food to all residents, living wages and expanded opportunities for farmers, producers and food workers, and methods of food production that renew our resources.
Back in the Centennial School District, the connections and opportunities continue to grow: Julie Mack has recently added sustainably caught cod from Astoria, Oregon and fresh vegetables from a local farm to the menu.
“Our kitchen staff is reinvigorated!” Julie says. “Students’ trays are piled high with fruits and veggies. Centennial has seen how food can engage people, create a new sense of community, and be a focal point for health and wellness.”
Ecotrust is committed to helping Centennial and others schools continue to build on their successes and change our food system to benefit communities.
Farm to School resources
The Impact of Seven Cents
Examining the effects of a $.07 per meal investment on local economic development, lunch participation rates, and student preferences for fruits and vegetables in two Oregon school districts
Farm to School Showcase Toolkit
A guide for connecting local food suppliers with school food buyers at school nutrition trade shows (available for download)
Growing Farm to Preschool in Your State, a How-to Guide
A state-level approach to farm to preschool is key to bringing local food and garden education to child care centers nationally. Here’s a 5-step guide to constructing a farm to preschool coalition.
Farm to Preschool newsletter
Ecotrust is leading this national movement on behalf of the National Farm to School Network. Sign up for monthly resources and information.