Oregon’s Farm to School leader takes new job
By Eric Mortenson
Michelle Ratcliffe, whose work with the Oregon Department of Agriculture is credited with delivering farm food to the school lunch counter and agricultural lessons to the classroom, is leaving to take a job in private business.
Ratcliffe will be in charge of developing non-commercial markets for Truitt Family Foods. The company, a spinoff of Truitt Brothers, the longtime Salem food processor, makes shelf-stable foods with a focus on selling to K-12 school districts, colleges, hospitals and other health facilities.
The move is significant because Ratcliffe is among the ag department’s most visible employees outside of Director Katy Coba and moves in circles, especially education and politics, that are beyond the farm. She helped convince the Oregon Legislature to fund the Farm to School program in 2008, served as its second director and appears in “Celebrate Oregon Agriculture” television segments that recently won the the 2014 North American Agricultural Marketing Officials (NAAMO) Marketing Excellence Award.
Her final work with the department includes filming a 30-minute “Dinner in Oregon” TV special that will air in September. The program — part reality show and part documentary — features three diverse families challenged to prepare a meal with Oregon fresh, frozen, dried or canned food.
Ratcliffe said it’s time to take the Farm to School concept to a market setting. The Oregon program, now a nationwide model, provides $1.2 million for schools to buy food from local farms. In addition, about 500 Oregon schools have started their own gardens. Students also learn about agriculture in class, meet farmers and ranchers and take farm field trips.
“It’s about bridging the urban-rural divide, economic development, health and wellness, community food security and academic achievement,” Ratcliffe said. “So when you have programs that work at all those levels in concert, which we do in Oregon, that’s when change happens.”
In her new job, Ratcliffe said she moves “from the outer ring to the center ring” in providing healthy, sustainable food.
Truitt Family Foods makes vegetable and fruit products that don’t have to be refrigerated and can be eaten at the dinner table, as a snack on the go or even on a plane — one of its customers is Alaska Airlines. The company recently developed a shelf-stable hummus in a single-serving cup, and will commission that new production line in September.
Ratcliffe said she met company owner Peter Truitt when they jointly petitioned legislators to support a Farm to School program several years ago. She credits him as a pioneer in providing healthy food to children at an early age.
“Who wouldn’t jump up and down to work with Peter Truitt, salt of the earth,” she said.
Truitt said the company has “almost given up on the K-12 marketplace” before Ratcliffe led the charge to get funding and legislative backing. “It had become bureaucratized, it was virtually impossible to scale the walls.”
He said Ratcliffe impressed him then as bright, enthusiastic and persistent. The company sells to school districts throughout the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, and expects those markets to continue growing with Ratcliffe’s work, Truitt said.
“She has a credible voice with (food service) directors all over the place,” he said. “She’s extremely energetic and easy to get to know.”
Ratcliffe, 40, lives in the Hubbard area with her husband, Jesse, an attorney with Oregon Department of Justice. They have two sons. Her replacement at the agriculture department has not yet been selected.