Paying Farmers So Kids Eat Better Meals
It all started more than a decade ago when Brian Clem noticed the public school at the edge of his father-in-law’s fruit farm in Parkdale, Oregon, a town of fewer than 100 families at the Washington border.
“I wondered if any growers had any food going into that school,” said Clem, now a state representative. “I knew the government uses its purchasing power to buy food for prisons and schools. But how much local food was part of it? That got me thinking about making a positive economic impact on Oregon farmers.
From those early thoughts to now, Clem has helped Oregon institute one of most aggressive farm-to-food programs in the country. While 35 states have some version of state support for bring local products into schools, Oregon’s Farm-to-School and School Garden Program is the first in which state money goes directly to farmers and processors who supply public schools with locally-produced food.
For now, it’s a two-year pilot program, with two school districts participating and farmers’ and processors receiving 15 cents from the state for each lunch that includes food they produce. A preliminary assessment of its success, showing improved nutrition for kids and job creation in Oregon’s agricultural industry, is providing impetus for expanding the program statewide.
“We should be able to build from here,” said Clem, who co-sponsored legislation that created the pilot. “The small farmers love it.”
Farm-to-school programs are a relatively new idea, starting with workshops in 2001 that led to a half dozen pilot programs in 2001. Today, according to the National Farm-to-School Network, there are more than 2,350 programs in all 50 states, with nearly 10,000 schools now supplementing their meal programs with locally-produced fruits, vegetables, poultry and meats.
While many of the programs are the result of local collaborations, 35 states have passed legislation that supports farm-to-school programs with either money, personnel, training or promotional efforts. Oregon is one of 10 states that have allocated money that leads to direct purchases from local farmers. It remains the only state that spends a specific amount per meal, according to a state-by-state analysis by the network.
Programs may differ in approach, but their goals are generally the same – to improve the diets and nutrition of kids prone to favor junk food and to spur employment among farmers and their vendors.
Megan Lott, a policy analyst for the network, said Oregon is also the only state to begin studying the health and economic impacts of a farm-to-school program.
A report released in May by Upstream Public Health of Portland concluded that direct spending with Oregon farmers to produce food for Oregon schools would add to job creation, strengthen the state agriculture industry, encourage farmers to utilize more advanced energy technologies in growing, improve children’s diets, enhance their appreciation for foods with higher nutritional values and give students a better chance at academic success.
It only stands to reason that carrots replacing potato chips would add nutritional value to a school lunch. But Lott said programs are so new and varied that more sophisticated health analyses, like measuring body mass index, haven’t been conducted yet.
“These programs haven’t been around long enough,” she said. “We need 10 to 20 year studies. There’s a lot of evidence that show they work, but there’s always more research to do.”
For his part, Rep. Clem is excited about future possibilities. The legislature was willing to appropriate money for the pilot program at a time Oregon was enduring its worse ever budget deficit, $3.5 billion
“I thought the chances of getting a new program funded were almost zero,” he said. “I was really shocked we got it. I’m hoping we can make it an on-going appropriation. It’s such a great program – we should be able to build from here.”