(Oct. 31, 11:49 a.m.) It was a simple, yet challenging concept: a healthful environment and community can exist amidst a robust economy.

A Portland, Ore.-based non-profit organization, with assistance from growers, food processors and retailers — and a nearly $300,000 grant from the Kaiser-Permanente Community Fund — is taking its message of a healthful environment and community into Portland Public Schools.

“We established the harvest-of-the-month program whereby a food product purchased directly from a producer is featured every other week at Portland schools,” said Deborah Kane, vice president of the food and farm program for Ecotrust, Portland, Ore.

Another program, Local Lunch, features a meal for the children made entirely with locally grown products.

Retailers, including the Portland-based chains of Bales Thriftway, Fred Meyer and New Seasons and Portland locations of Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, are lending support to the programs, Kane said.

“These programs can’t exist in isolation,” Kane said. “Those relationships are really vital.”

Ecotrust and the Portland schools urge parents to reinforce the harvest-of-the-month program by using the featured commodity in home meals, Kane said. Parents who traditionally prepare sack lunches also are asked to have their children purchase the harvest-of-the-month meals in the cafeterias, she said.

The retail partners further reinforce the message with signage and promotions, Kane said.

Grower-retailer relationships

The nine-store New Seasons chain is in its second year of participation in the farm to school program, said Claudia Knotek, community relations manager. That participation has included annual $5,000 donations to Ecotrust, she said, and sometimes is emotionally trying.

“When Oregon strawberries were featured in the harvest-of-the-month program, it was the first time some of the children in the Portland Public Schools had had fresh strawberries,” Knotek said. “It almost made me cry.”

The goal of the chain and the harvest-of-the-month program is full circle, Knotek said. The school district is buying from local producers, giving students the chance to try new foods and involving the teachers and their lesson plans, while the stores are providing signage. The result is that children get to know about local food products, she said.

The New Seasons’ community outreach extends beyond school cafeterias. The retailer has developed the Pacific Village program, which is the label on a variety of locally grown products. The company donates a portion of the proceeds from the sales of those products to the area’s farmers markets. The donations have totaled $50,000 annually, Knotek said.

While the farmers markets are, to some degree, in competition with retailers, Knotek said the donations benefit everyone.

“The farmers also sell to our stores, and we need them,” she said.

The chain amplifies the grower-retailer relationship by staging weekly market days, Knotek said. The promotion, which runs from June through October annually, invites growers to the stores when their products are being featured.

The lion’s share of the donations to the farmers markets has gone to the installation of automated banking machines at the regional markets, Knotek said. The machines, which dispense tokens that may be used to purchase fresh produce, also accept the cards that replaced the federal food stamps, she said. In addition, the farmers’ markets accept Women, Infant and Children vouchers.

“Those markets with whom we’ve partnered are seeing huge numbers of dollars being transferred into tokens,” Knotek said.

Growers, food processors and manufacturers have been very supportive of getting local products into the schools, Kane said.

“The recognition that we’re not just talking about fresh fruits and vegetables, but also very interested in processed items made in Oregon, has created a lot of enthusiasm all across the ag sector,” she said.

Lobbying pays off

As retailers and cafeteria workers promote local produce in the Portland area, the Ecotrust staff is in Salem lobbying the state’s lawmakers, Kane said. Those efforts are beginning to pay dividends.

In 2007, the legislature created a full-time position in the Oregon Department of Agriculture, Kane said. Cory Schreiber, a well-known chef in the Portland area, took the position.

“He’s to ready the supply side, to work with Oregon farmers and processors and manufacturers to remind them that the school foodservice market exists,” Kane said.

This year, the legislature created a corollary position in the Department of Education.

“Oregon is now the first state in the nation to have two full-time folks focused on school food issues in those two state agencies,” Kane said. “The final frontier is to allocate general funds for the express purpose of purchasing more local products for the school lunch lines.”

“A roadblock to serving more locally grown produce in school cafeterias is that the products are more expensive,” said Matt Shelby, public information officer for Portland Public Schools. “So it’s cost prohibitive on a daily basis at this time.”

The success of the harvest-of-the-month program and the funding from Kaiser-Permanente could garner an infusion of state funds.

“Our theory is if we could run the program with philanthropic resources, then when we go back to the legislature in 2009 we’ll have some data to support the theory that if we prioritize procurement of local products, the local economy will be stimulated — and we’ll be doing right by our kids,” Kane said.

Oregon is one of the few states that does not contribute general fund dollars to the federal school lunch and breakfast program funds, Kane said.

Another dimension by which the harvest-of-the-month and local lunch programs can be measured is student feedback. Complaints about school meals have decreased, Kane said, and the school district is getting positive feedback from parents and students. The verdict is not unanimous, and kids will be kids.

“It really depends on the fruit or the vegetable,” said Shelby.