SALEM — Oregon’s Farm-to-School and School Garden Network is poised to expand after state lawmakers approved a bill tripling the program’s budget.
House Bill 2579 passed June 29 as Senate Republicans returned to work from a nine-day walkout in opposition to a controversial carbon pricing scheme known as cap and trade. The senators rushed to vote on numerous bills over two days in order for the Legislature to adjourn by June 30.
That included HB 2579, which cleared both the House and Senate unanimously.
The Farm-to-School Program awards non-competitive grants to school districts across Oregon, reimbursing them for buying locally grown and processed food. Any district can opt in, and funding is determined based on the number of meals served under the National School Lunch Program — with a minimum award of $500 for smaller districts.
Districts can also apply for separate competitive grants to fund school gardens and educational activities, teaching kids about agriculture.
Rick Sherman, Farm-to-School and School Garden coordinator for the Oregon Department of Education, said the program started in 2012 with just $200,000. The current budget is $4.5 million, and now HB 2579 will provide an additional $10.35 million from the state general fund through 2021, bringing the total to nearly $15 million.
“We’ve been doing this for almost eight years now,” Sherman said. “It’s been a great program. It continues to grow.”
Sherman said the program served 131 school districts in 2018, accounting for 90% of all school lunches in the state.
With increased funding, HB 2579 will expand the Farm-to-School Program to federally funded early childcare and summer food service centers, such as Head Start. Most of the money, $11 million, will go toward grants for schools to purchase Oregon-grown food.
Some $2.5 million is set aside for farm and garden-based education grants. Oregon has 758 school gardens across the state, Sherman said.
HB 2579 allocates $500,000 to the Oregon Department of Agriculture to help farmers and ranchers with Farm-to-School market access. The rest of the money is for program evaluation, technical assistance and administrative costs.
Megan Kemple, director of the Oregon Farm-to-School and School Garden Network, said Oregon’s Farm-to-School Program is a “win-win-win,” not only supporting kids and communities, but connecting farmers with new markets for their products.
“There are a lot of producers that really appreciate the schools as a market because they are reliable,” Kemple said. “It has allowed them to basically stabilize their businesses.”
For example, Pollock & Sons, a watermelon farm in Hermiston, Ore., sold $3,842 worth of late-season fruit to schools during a time when grocery sales typically fall off at the end of summer. Port Orford Sustainable Seafood was also able to sell surplus fish to Rogue Valley Farm-to-School.
Kemple said Oregon’s Farm-to-School Program is a model for the country.
“At a time when the state is politically divided, bipartisan efforts like this bring Republicans and Democrats together and bridge the urban-rural divide,” Kemple said.
State Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, was a chief sponsor of the bill. He said he is excited to see the Farm-to-School Program expand.
“We should always be using tax dollars to buy local,” Clem said in a statement. “It never made sense to me to buy apples from anywhere else than right here in Oregon. This program connects our schools and children to our most important industry: agriculture. It’s Oregon farmers feeding Oregon’s children.”