Farm to School funding hangs in the balance

Students participating in Humbolt Elementary's Farm to School Academy enjoyed a field trip last fall to Thomas Orchards in Kimberly.

Oregon’s Farm to School and School Garden program, which gives local students an inside look at the area agricultural industry and brings local produce to school cafeterias, is competing with other spending bills in the Joint Committee on Ways and Means.

Rep. Brian Clem championed House Bill 2038 to save the Farm to School program after it was removed from Gov. Kate Brown’s proposed 2017-19 draft budget.

Clem is also moving to expand grant funding for the program from the current $4.5 million to $5.6 million for the coming two-year budget cycle.

There are 144 schools districts receiving Farm to School funds, which bring Oregon produce, meat, fish and dairy products to students.

Students who eat breakfast and lunch at Grant School District No. 3 schools — Grant Union Junior-Senior High School in John Day, Humbolt Elementary in Canyon City and Seneca School — have been served local food through the program.

Head cook Natalie Weaver said the funding she receives through the Farm to School grant is determined by the number of students and how many of them receive reduced-price or free meals.

“You can order anything local, Oregon products or products that are processed here,” she said.

Some purchases she’s made for the school have included fruit from Kimberly and lettuce from Bend.

The grant funding also pays for the cut and wrap fees for beef that is donated to the school district.

“It is beneficial,” she said. “We’re on a budget crunch, so the extra funding helps.”

Some favorites for the students are the pears and apples grown in Kimberly.

“The kids absolutely love it,” she said. “They devour it faster than I can put it out there.”

Another part of the program involves teaching Oregon kids how food gets from the farm and ranch to the table.

The Farm to School Academy, coordinated by Elise Delgado of the South Fork John Day Watershed Council, receives funding through a Farm to School competitive grant.

Each month, Delgado and volunteers teach 20-30 Humbolt and Seneca school fifth- and sixth-graders hands-on lessons, including field trips, about where their food comes from and the work involved to produce it.

The group will travel to Seneca April 21 to plant four varieties of apple trees provided by Julia Justice of Better Blooms and Gardens in Prairie City, with a lesson from Matt Allen of Apricot Apiaries in Kimberly.

The students visited Thomas Orchards in Kimberly last fall to see how Jeff Thomas and his family operate their business. Sixth-grader Destiny Pelayo said she enjoyed the field trip.

“My favorite part has been being with friends and learning so many things with them in a fun way,” she said.

In an interview last week, Delgado said the students learn how food is produced on the field trips. Their last trip was a visit in February to Jones Ranch in Mt. Vernon.

“It gives context to the information that is actually applicable to student’s lives,” she said. “They can see how that applies to their world, and they’re not just memorizing (from a textbook). It gives them the opportunity to get out to the land and see all that goes into it, not just the land and how it’s being worked and managed but the culture and energy that has to go into operations in Grant County.”

She said natural resources are a foundation of local communities.

“Here, not only do we eat the food, but we drive by the fields where food is being produced, and our friends come from natural resource families, and it needs to be understood by our students,” she said. “The Farm to School funding is allowing us to do that in this community.”

Jeff Thomas traveled to Salem in February for a hearing on Farm to School funding.

Megan Kemple of Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Network said in a press release Thomas testified at the hearing that selling to schools has helped his family orchard stay afloat, and how he values these programs both for the sales and the educational components.

“He emphasized that buying locally helps keep money circulating in Oregon communities, and said that investing in farm to school and school gardens is ‘one of the best ways you can spend your dollar,’” she said.

Capital Bureau reporter Mateusz Perkowski contributed to this report.

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