While Oregon lawmakers consider the fate of farm-to-school legislation this session, others are forging ahead with plans to bring together locally grown and processed foods with school lunch programs throughout the state.
Among those efforts was a recent one-day meeting at the Food Innovation Center in Portland hosted by the Oregon Department of Agriculture. The meeting attracted 24 food processors and representatives of six Oregon school districts responsible for 25 percent of the state's school food budget.
"As a result of the meeting, we've had several school districts tell us there will be Oregon products on the menu this coming year that they would not have otherwise offered," says Gary Roth, administrator of the agency's Agricultural Development and Marketing Division in Salem. "Getting Oregon products into Oregon schools absolutely fits with the buy local trend we see throughout the state and the country."
Products sampled and considered ranged from fruits and vegetables to dairy products and baking goods. The ultimate goal is to get healthy, nutritious local food as part of the 47 million school lunches and 22 million school breakfasts served in Oregon each year.
"Supporting Oregon farmers and producers, and reducing transportation fuel usage will be considered in buying decisions when possible," says Janet Beer of the Tigard-Tualatin School District.
"I think it's critical for schools to start exploring ways they can incorporate and use local products," says Susan Barker of the Beaverton School District. "The schools serve the community and the community supports the schools. So buying locally whenever possible just makes good sense."
The participating food processors also see a great opportunity in reaching kids via the schools.
"We view Oregon schools as a good opportunity for our apple juice, especially with all the pressure to supply kids with healthy drinks when they are at school," says Keith Loran of the Hood River Juice Co. in Hood River, Ore.. "I also think it is important for schools to buy locally whenever possible. It is a great way for the schools to give back to the state and local economy, which the schools rely upon for funding."
Chantal Wright of Norpac Foods in Lake Oswego, Ore., is excited about providing processed vegetable components to schools.
"Taking into consideration the number of school districts in the state and the number of children that are fed daily, it is key that we explore the options to join forces with Oregon schools and be a part of their initiative to provide healthy meals," Wright says. "We are fortunate to have a vast array of local produce, dairies, and bakeries in Oregon that produce top quality products needed by the schools."
The two-way exchange of information between processors and school district representatives provided some key first steps in a business relationship that should move local products onto the menu. Food processors learned about what types of foods and recipes worked best for schools. In some cases, there was a creative discussion on how certain food products could be part of new meal solutions that meet dietary requirements while still keeping kids interested in eating lunch at school.
"We have an upscale line of vegetables that was of interest and a line of pastas that was a huge hit," Wright says. "These products allow schools a shorter prep time and a spectrum of creativity with each item."
"The one consistent comment I got from the school district buyers was that our apple cider tastes like an apple and a lot of the juice they buy does not," Loran says. "They are very interested because it is an all natural apple cider and, more importantly, they thought the kids would drink it."
Meanwhile, Ecotrust Food and Farms Program or Portland continues to partner with school districts across the state to bring Oregon-grown foods into the school lunch program. A handful of bills to further the farm-to-school movement continue to be debated at the state capitol.