Workshops explore program that brings healthy food from local farms to school cafeterias

March 10, 2010 03:18 pm

Andi Sexton, Oregon Rural Action’s Farm to School coordinator, delivers opening remarks during a program workshop Friday in Island City. Bill Rautenstrauch/ Observer photo
Andi Sexton, Oregon Rural Action’s Farm to School coordinator, delivers opening remarks during a program workshop Friday in Island City. Bill Rautenstrauch/ Observer photo
Healthy foods in school cafeterias and possible new markets for local family farms were topics at “Farm-to-School” workshops hosted in Island City last Friday by Oregon Rural Action.

The grassroots citizens group is teaming with Union County Fit Kids to make Farm-to-Schools a local reality. UC Fit Kids has laid some of the groundwork, with help from community partners.

“The community is driving the action steps that will be implemented over time,” Vickie Brogoitti of UC Fit Kids told a crowd of about 30 people turned out for the morning workshop.

The evolving Union County program is linked to the national Farm-to-School network. The main goals are to support community-based food systems, strengthen family farms and improve student health.

Collaborating with UC Fit Kids, Oregon Rural Action has received first-year funding from the Meyer Memorial Trust for a three-year Farm-to-School project tailored to the county.

Also, other grant money is being used to establish gardens at several schools in Union and Baker counties, said Eric Blackford of the Union-Baker Educational Service District.

“The grant funds provide opportunities for kids to participate in after-school gardens. We’re really excited about it,” he said.

ORA held one workshop for producers in the morning, and a second for schools and community members in the afternoon.

The three featured speakers were Joan Ottinger, a Farm-to-School coordinator for the Oregon Department of Education; Pam Lessley, nutrition services director for Lebanon schools; and Katrina Wiest, a wellness specialist for Bend-La Pine schools.

Ottinger said she has traveled the state looking at various Farm-to-School programs. She said she is convinced the programs yield big benefits in terms of health.

“The more children and adults know about their food, the better they eat,” she said.

She said people building a program need community support, and also should form a strong team.

Communication with the community is essential, she added.

“If you’re going to buy local, tell everyone you know,” she said.

She added that particular attention should be paid to building connections between local producers and schools.

“It needs to be profitable for the farmer and affordable for the schools,” she said.

Lessley gave a presentation called “Planting Seeds of Change,” talking extensively about about a gardening program created for students in the Lebanon School District.

She said she helped start the program out of concern for students’ eating habits.

“One in four children 10-17 years old is obese, and that can lead to lifelong medical problems,” she said.

The Lebanon gardening program was successful from the start, with more than 90 kids turning out to build a production garden. Funded by donations, the program has continued to grow.

Lessley said children are involved in testing soil, grafting trees, composting, journal keeping and more. They grow broccoli, watermelon, corn and many other vegetable varieties for school salad bars.

“Our big production garden will feed the whole district,” she said.

Wiest said the Farm-to-School program she helped build for the Bend-La Pine district orders both produce and meats on a daily basis from area farmers.

She said the program has created healthy demand for locally-grown products. Kimberly Orchards, for instance, keeps the schools supplied with apples, and Painted Hills Co-Op in Grant County supplies natural beef.

“It’s whatever we can get our hands on. We can’t get enough,” she said.

Wiest said she works hard to build relationships with local suppliers and resolve distribution and storage issues.

Like Ottinger, Wiest said it is important for those involved in a new program to communicate and build connections.

“Tell your story. You’ve got to put it out there,” she said.

In a morning brainstorming session, potential local producers asked questions on issues ranging from distribution and storage to government regulations and inspections and more.

“What we most likely need is dialogue,” one participant commented.

“It will work if you start talking about it,” Wiest replied.

Teresa Roark, a community organizer for Oregon Rural Action, said she was pleased with the turnout at both workshops.

She said having three experts on the workshop panel helped further the Farm-to-School cause. Local producers and school representatives came away with plenty to think about.

“I think people are really motivated. A lot of people said seeing programs that are working makes them think it’s possible,” she said.

Andi Sexton, Oregon Rural Action’s Farm-to-School coordinator, said the workshop spawned a respectable level of local interest.

A farmer in North Powder is looking at supplying the school there with meat and produce. A local wheat producer raised the possibility of establishing a flour mill. Still another workshop participant suggested a community kitchen for food processing.

For more information about the local Farm-to-Schools program, call Oregon Rural Action at 541-975-2411.