Did you know that Oregon schools lead the nation in percentage of food budget spent on local foods? Oregon has clearly embraced farm to school programs and is poised to increase the impact local foods have in the lives of school children statewide. The first ever USDA Farm to School Census provides both a national and state-by-state snapshot of related efforts. The assessment shows that Oregon school districts are directing 24 percent of their food budgets to purchase local foods. That’s the highest percentage in the country. In addition, two-thirds of all Oregon school districts are participating in farm to school and school garden activities.
“It’s remarkable to see that one out of every four dollars spent by our school districts on food goes to buy local foods,” says Katy Coba, Director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “The numbers show a high interest and participation among districts who want to bring the farm to the school. Now is the time to build on a very solid foundation in Oregon.”
For the first time, a system is in place to track the impact of farm to school programs on a state and national basis. At the national level, 44 percent of the school districts responding to the census are operating farm to school programs as of the 2012-2013 school year. Another 13 percent of the respondents said they planned to start in the future. Nationally, schools purchased more than $386 million in local food from farmers, ranchers, fishermen and food manufacturers.
In Oregon, the census shows 82 of the 123 public school districts responding to the survey are involved in farm to school programs, representing about 714 individual schools with an estimated 366,066 children in attendance. While school districts in some of the other states might be spending more dollars overall, nobody spends a higher percentage of their food budget on local foods. More than $9.5 million of the dollars spent by Oregon school districts on food was used to purchase local products.
Deborah Kane, the national director for USDA’s Farm to School Program, is in a unique position to appreciate what is happening in Oregon.
"I was living and working in Oregon as the farm to school movement was in its infancy and I was excited to be a part of its growth during that time. It doesn't surprise me at all to see Oregon's positive numbers from the census. There is an abundance of local growers who can provide healthy food and tremendous momentum within Oregon schools that are interested in bringing the farm into the classroom and cafeteria. Not only is there interest in farm to school programs, there is a high level of participation. I'm very proud of Oregon.”
Since the statistics from the census are based on what was taking place more than a year ago, and only reflect those school districts that responded to the survey, Oregon’s numbers are undoubtedly higher than reported.
“Even though the figures are understated, they couldn’t be more encouraging,” says Michelle Markesteyn Ratcliffe, manager of ODA’s Farm to School Program. “These numbers say that all the partnerships and efforts to go into farm to school are paying off for Oregon kids and Oregon farmers. The amount of collaboration taking place is extraordinary, with ODA, the Oregon Department of Education, the Oregon Health Authority, Oregon State University and literally hundreds of businesses and community-based organizations working together.”
The census provides other useful and interesting information. Among respondents, farm to school activities reach all age groups in Oregon with 91 percent of elementary school kids, 64 percent of middle school students, and 53 percent of high school students being exposed to the foods, the education, and the activities.
The census also shows the types of local foods most likely to find their way onto the school meal tray in Oregon. At the top of the list of products being purchased by school districts are fruits and vegetables, dairy products, baked goods, eggs, meat or poultry and herbs. Looking even closer, the top five specific local items include pears, berries, milk, beef and watermelon.
Survey results also indicate the prevalence of school gardens in Oregon, with 87 schools reporting having one. Once again, the census only captures part of the data. State officials have done their own count and report 505 school gardens in Oregon– 43 percent of the state’s public schools.
Oregon is an active participant in the National Farm to School Network and continues to be a host site for FoodCorps– the first-ever national deployment of service members specifically working on farm to school and school garden activities.
“FoodCorps members build and tend school gardens, teach kids about nutrition and agriculture and help schools source more local agricultural products, “ says Ratcliffe. “We continue to be thrilled with the program.”
These statistics offer proof that farm to school programs are alive and well. But there is also anecdotal evidence that providing local and nutritious foods to kids is rewarding. Ratcliffe has talked to school nutrition services managers– the people who actually buy the food. One told her that in 20 years on the job, they had never been happier or felt so connected to the community.
While the census numbers are encouraging, there are many more schools and kids who can benefit by adopting farm to school and school garden activities. Ratcliffe would like to see the numbers double by the time a new census is completed, whenever that takes place.
“Farm to school is this incredible systemic approach to doing things that Oregonians care about, like bridging the rural and urban divide, cultivating agripreneurs and getting more people into careers in food systems and agriculture. We’ve seen it spark interest in kids as they get into the garden and learn. Farm to school matters to Oregonians because of public health considerations and the ability to promote lifelong healthy eating. So it’s all of it– education, public health, the economy, and the environment. It’s a dream turned into reality.”
The investment in the health of kids in Oregon and the US through farm to school seems to be paying off. For more detailed information on Oregon’s farm to school data, check out the USDA Farm to School Census results.