Nothing But Enthusiasm for Farm to School in First Hearing on Program Expansion

Farmers, food processors, public health advocates, and the Speaker of the House laud the many benefits of Farm to School and School Garden programs, and ask to expand the grant funding to school districts

 

February 22, 2013 – The first public hearing on a proposal to expand Farm to School and School Garden funding (House Bill 2649) received strong support in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday, February 21, 2013. HB 2649 asks for $5,000,000 in grant funding to school districts for 2013 to 2015 for the purchase of Oregongrown or –processed products and for food-, garden-, and agriculture-based education, from chef visits to school gardens to farm field trips. The bill was lauded as an excellent economic stimulator, creating upwards of 65 jobs, and paving the way for innovative partnerships between 
school districts and farmers to feed children healthy foods grown right within their home state.
 
House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-North/NE Portland) and Representative Brian Clem (D-Salem) are the lead sponsors for the bill. They opened the testimony together, recollecting that they 
began working on Farm to School legislation as new members of the legislature in 2007. Representative Kotek comes to the issue from the perspective of children’s health and hunger, after having worked at Children First for Oregon and the Oregon Food Bank.  Representative Clem comes to the issue from the perspective of being a food producer; he and his wife help operate her family’s pear orchard near Hood River. He found himself wondering one day if they ever sold to the elementary school next to the farm.  (They didn’t.)
 
Representatives Kotek and Clem argued that now is a prime opportunity to fund and scale up Farm to School programs statewide. This is the first bill that Representative Kotek has testified for in 2013, and she challenged the committee to “not just pass this bill out of committee, but help find the funding for it.” Representative Clem lauded Farm to School as “one of the best 
bangs-for-your-buck opportunities to help Oregon agriculture.”
 
With their help, Farm to School has come a long way since 2007.  Staff positions have been created in the Oregon Departments of Agriculture and Education to promote Farm to School and School Garden programs. Staff from the two agencies shared some of their projects, from developing educational materials for use in classrooms and cafeterias, to hosting FoodCorps 
members, to helping educate kids and their families about Oregon agriculture so that they will arrive at school “ready to eat.”
 
At this juncture, Oregon schools are pushing the limits of what can be accomplished without additional resources. According to Kasandra Griffin of Upstream Public Health, “These two agencies have done great work to promote Farm to School and School Garden opportunities to farmers and schools, and have helped leverage public-private partnerships to get these programs 
going.  Thanks to them, hundreds of Oregon schools are now buying some Oregon food products, and thousands of Oregon kids have gotten more educated and more excited about their 
food.  But there is much further to go.”  
 
Next to testify were food producers who have participated in Farm to School programs.Farmers Tom and Sue Hunton of Huntons’ Farm (Junction City) and Camas Country Mill (Eugene) testified about the new role that schools are playing in their business, and their enthusiasm for doing food and farm education. The Huntons sell whole wheat flour to BendLaPine, Bethel and North Santiam School Districts, and bring the students on field trips to tour 
their farm and mill, where they can try their hand at making stone ground flour from freshly harvested wheat. The Huntons and other farmers are now planting wheat in Lane County with signs in the fields announcing that it is “Grown for Oregon Schools.” 
 
Peter Truitt of Truitt Brothers also testified in support. Truitt’s food processing operation, based in Salem, employs 600 people and sources products from all over the state. Truitt is creating 
“starter kits” of soup bases to which schools can add fresh products from their school gardens or local vendors. As the legislators passed around the silver pouch of his sample soup base, Truitt 
wrapped up his testimony saying he is “proud to be helping schools meet their nutrition goals and supporting local economies.”
 
In 2011, the Oregon Legislature unanimously passed funding for a pilot Farm to School project (HB 2800) that set the stage for this bill. Pam Lessley, Food Services Director for Lebanon Community Schools, thanked the committee for authorizing $200,000 in pilot funding in 2011, and shared what her district is doing, as one of the 11 districts to receive the funding.  “We are buying frozen Marionberries and strawberries from Willamette Valley Fruit right here in Salem…. It’s been fun to watch the younger students eat the Marionberries and show their friends their purple tongues.”  
 
After describing a program to buy beef through her FFA, she 
closed by asking the committee to “support this program expansion so more districts can have the kinds of opportunities we are having now.”  Hunger advocates and school employees also see great benefit from this bill. Robyn Johnson of the Oregon Hunger Task Force reminded the committee that over 300,000 Oregon children 
qualify for free and reduced price lunch, and urged passage of the bill, saying “HB 2649 is a wise investment for the state; it helps reduce child hunger, increases food security and improves the 
quality of the food we can give to our children.”  
 
Tricia Smith of the Oregon School Employees Association added that school food service employees are excited about the changes this program is bringing to Oregon school cafeterias and kitchens. The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee responded enthusiastically and was very engaged. Eight of the nine members of the committee were present, and all of them asked questions and/or voiced their support of the program. Representative Wayne Kreiger (R - Gold Beach) said, “I don’t know a single person that would speak out against this program.” 
Representative Jeff Reardon (D - East Portland) said, “I could not support this bill any more than I already do.”  Many of the questions posed to the panelists suggested further expansion of the 
Farm to School and School Garden Program: Representative Ben Unger (D - Hillsboro) asked about ways to make a bigger economic impact on area farmers, and Representative Caddy 
McKeown (D - Coos Bay) asked if there was room to include breakfast or ‘take home meals’ that are common for low-income students in her district and around the state. 
 
The hearing was closed without vote as Chair Brad Witt (D- Clatskanie) thanked the panelists for lending their voices to speak to “what appears to be unanimous support for this bill.” He particularly gave a heartfelt thank you to the farmers and processors for doing business in Oregon, calling them “the backbone of Oregon’s economy.”  A vote is likely in the week of 
March 5th.
 
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