Susan Parrish
The La Grande Observer

NORTH POWDER — Standing in North Powder Charter School’s garden, Desiree McGinn climbed onto a raised bed to address the 24 students who gathered around her. Onions, potatoes, kale, bell peppers, carrots and tomatoes were ready to be harvested by the students on a recent Monday afternoon.

“You know how I carry seeds around in my pocket all the time?” said McGinn, who is the school’s FoodCorps service member. “I think I spilled some pumpkin seeds in the hoop house (a greenhouse). The pumpkins have taken over in there. So watch your step when you’re picking tomatoes.”

Then she divided the students into groups to harvest the vegetables they had planted in the spring. For the last group, she had a special task.

“Do you want to feed the chickens?” McGinn asked.

Off they ran to the chicken coop while their classmates picked up shovels and spades and set to work harvesting veggies.

“Sometimes it can get a little bit crazy,” McGinn laughed. “It’s nice to let them take ownership.”

McGinn works with students in the school garden to help provide school-grown produce for healthy school meals. Under McGinn’s direction, the students plant seeds, tend the garden and harvest the produce. About 80 percent of the garden’s produce is used in the school kitchen for school lunches. Eventually, the kids will eat the produce they were harvesting.

The school garden joins a network of more than 600 Oregon Farm to School and School Gardens in the state. North Powder Charter School is one of only 10 FoodCorps service sites in Oregon, which “connects kids to healthy food in school so they can lead healthier lives and reach their full potential,” according to the Oregon FoodCorps website. The program is sponsored by the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

“FoodCorps is a team of AmeriCorps leaders who serve in high-need schools delivering hands-on lessons in growing, cooking and tasting healthy food; improving students’ experiences with healthy school meals; and encouraging a schoolwide culture of health,” said Aaron Poplack, who works at Oregon’s FoodCorps office headquartered in Portland.

He explained that the Farm to School program “supports Oregon producers by providing reimbursement to school districts for purchasing Oregon-grown and Oregon-processed foods” and also “offers grant funding for districts and organizations to promote garden, agriculture and food-based educational opportunities for students.”

In addition to supervising students in the school garden, McGinn teaches garden-based hands-on lessons in the classroom. In a recent lesson about preserving food, she demonstrated how to dehydrate pears.

Scarce veggies

Not far from the school campus, enormous haystacks rise up in the distance and massive potato fields and cattle ranches stretch in either direction toward Baker City and La Grande. Although many of the North Powder students are farm children, some students do not have easy access to fresh produce and healthy food. According to FoodCorp’s website, 15 percent of Oregon families are food insecure, which means families have limited or uncertain access to adequate food. In North Powder, 70 percent of students in kindergarten through third grade are economically disadvantaged, according to the Oregon Department of Education. Living on a lower income can make it tough to buy fresh vegetables.

North Powder’s geographic distance from grocery stores in Baker City and La Grande makes it challenging for some families to access fresh produce. Driving a 50-mile-round-trip to buy groceries is difficult for a family without a working car or perhaps without gas to spare. The closest grocery store, Union Market, is 15 miles away and offers some fresh produce. North Powder’s only food store is CJ’s Country Store, a convenience store that sells some produce from a Boise, Idaho, supplier, said owner Cindy Wright.

McGinn said she brings about 20 percent of the school garden’s produce to CJ’s Country Store to be sold. About two weeks ago, Wright said, fresh carrots were delivered from the school garden. They didn’t last long.

“When the school brings produce here, it goes pretty quickly,” Wright said.

One community resource for local families is the North Powder Food Bank, which distributes food boxes at the North Powder Grange on the third Wednesday of every month. In addition, Oregon Food Bank’s Fresh Alliance program delivers fresh produce every Thursday at the grange.

Back in the school garden, the students had mounded freshly plucked produce onto plastic trays. A grinning Chloe Cox ran up to McGinn to show her an enormous potato she had dug from the garden. It would join the other fresh produce headed for the school kitchen. Chloe’s potato could be part of her school lunch later in the week. Would the students eat the peppers, kale and onions?

“They’re not always happy about trying new food,” McGinn said, “but they’re always willing to try.”