Locally grown foods find receptive market in schools
By Eric Mortenson
Oregon school districts spend nearly 24 percent of their lunch budgets on locally produced food, the highest percentage in the nation, according to the USDA Farm to School Census.
Washington schools are second nationally, spending 22 percent of school nutrition budgets for food grown or processed locally, according to the census. Agriculture officials say the numbers indicate strong local support for the program.
“I attribute that to how westerners, and Oregonians in particular, view the Farm to School approach,” said Michelle Markesteyn Ratcliffe, manager of the program for the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “It really gets at things we care about.”
In other states, Farm to School programs are promoted from the standpoint of healthy eating or battling childhood obesity, Markesteyn Ratcliffe said. In the West, the program also bridges the urban and rural divide by providing economic opportunity to producers and introducing students to environmental concerns, she said.
Out of the $39.6 million Oregon public schools spent on nutrition programs in 2011-12, $9.5 million was used to buy local food, primarily fruit, vegetables and milk, according to the census. In addition to Washington’s 22 percent figure, California schools spent 19 percent of nutrition budgets on local food and Idaho spent 15 percent. Nationally, local food purchases accounted for 12.8 percent of nutrition budgets.
In general, western states are more likely than other regions to take part in Farm to School programs, the census shows. Nationally, 44 percent of school districts buy locally produced food, while 67 percent of Oregon districts take part, 56 percent in California, 49 percent in Idaho and 47 percent in Washington. About 43 percent of Oregon schools also have their own gardens.
Farm to School programs are expanding in scope, Markesteyn Ratcliffe said. They originally were designed to get fresh vegetables and fruit on the menu, “But Oregon is on the forefront of saying it’s the whole tray: Your milk, your beef, your fruit and vegetables and it’s your processed products,” she said.
The Oregon program now is focused on harnessing the buying power of the state’s largest school districts, she said. While it may not make economic sense for suppliers to deal with small school districts individually, they can be served by coordinated purchases and distribution.