Farm to school boosts local agriculture


08.28.13 Thumbnail FarmOregon’s Farm to School program has three purposes: it provides nutritious school meals to kids, teaches them about growing food and supports local agriculture.

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Farm to School vegetarian soup and chili from Truitt Family Foods.
// Photo by Amanda Waldroupe

Oregon farmers and producers gush when you ask them about participating in Oregon’s Farm to School and School Garden program and selling fresh fruits, vegetables, grain and meats to Oregon school districts.

They value the opportunity to help schools meet new nutrition standards, provide kids with healthy, well-rounded meals and host field trips at their farms so kids can learn more about farming, agriculture and how food is grown.

“Emotionally, it’s very fulfilling,” Tom Hunton, owner of Eugene’s Camas Country Mill, says. “It’s part of the business that we cherish and value.”

It’s also created increased and steady business for Oregon farmers and producers, “pure and simple,” says Peter Truitt, owner of Salem-based food processor Truitt Family Foods.

The Farm to School program has three purposes: providing nutritious school meals to kids, teach them about growing food, and supporting local agriculture. First created by the Oregon Legislature in 2007, it was first funded in 2009 with $200,000, allowing the Department of Education to provide funding to the Portland and Gervais public school districts to purchase food from local farmers, reimbursing the districts seven cents for each meal that included local food.

Before adjourning in early July, the Legislature gave the program a major boost: it increased funding to $1.2 million, enough for any school district to apply for funding. The first round of grant applications closed on July 31, and the Department of Education is expected to announce recipients in the coming weeks. 

The additional funding and the program’s statewide expansion is expected to be a significant source of economic stimulus and development for Oregon agriculture,  provide an opportunity to farmers and producers to establish long-term relationships in new markets and spur developing new products and new ways of reaching customers.

“Finding consistent markets is a challenge for farmers,” says Ivan Maluski, Friends of Family Farms’ policy director. “There is going to be more opportunity for farms to sell products locally. That inherently creates certainty for those farmers and helps ensure that they stay in business.”

In 2011, EcoTrust published the “Impact of Seven Cents,” which examined the economic impact of a pilot program: the Farm to School program with the Portland and Gervais school districts during the 2008-2009 school year. Those districts were given $160,750.02, which amount to a seven-cent reimbursement from the state for each school meal that included locally sourced food.

The report found that the money used to reimburse schools incentivized local food purchases totaling $461,992.10. In successive rounds of economic activity, such as future purchasing and spending, the report found that every dollar spent on purchasing local food for school meals encourages an additional 86 cents of spending among suppliers, producers and households.

The study also found that for every job created with extra spending at schools for local food, another 1.43 jobs would be created elsewhere in the economy. “It’s significant,” says Michelle Markesteyn Ratcliffe, the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School coordinator, adding that fresh fruit and vegetable farms that sell directly to schools are the most immediately impacted.

Truitt Family Farms did not contract with any school districts prior to becoming involved with the Farm to School program in 2007. Truitt says selling food to school districts can be too difficult and time consuming because school kitchens can be ill-equipped and the contracting process bureaucratic.

His business now provides the Portland, Salem-Kaiser, Eugene, Medford, Ashland, Gervais and Bend-LaPine School Districts with canned beans, reduced sodium vegetarian chili and a vegetable soup base that fresh food can be added to make different vegetarian soups.

Selling the products to the school districts through the Farm to School program caused double digit increased in product sales and also created an entirely new market for his business.

Truitt Family Farms is already planning to work with other school districts in Oregon, and Truitt says distributing his products to smaller school districts will be easier now that the Farm to School program can reimburse those districts.

Hunton’s Camas Country Mills provided approximately 2,000 pounds of whole wheat flour each week to the Bethel and Bend-LaPine during the 2012 school year, which the districts used to make muffins, sandwich bread, pizza dough and rolls. Camas Country Mill also sold 200,000 pounds of a lentil barley soup mix to schools.

Hunton estimates that the business he has acquired through the Farm to School program represents about five percent of his total business.  That’s about the same for Heritage Specialty Foods, which provides a marinara sauce and salad dressings to Portland Public Schools, owner Steven Hendren says.

Although working with the Farm to School program represents a small proportion of business, Hunton believes school children who grow up eating locally grown food are more likely to buy it in the future, and that he’s essentially creating future customers. Ratliffe also points out it can be enough to help for smaller farmers and producers stay profitable each year.

“It could be more than that, we just need to get into more of the districts,” Hendren says. “The potential for growth is big. There’s a multitude of other items we could be making for them, from gravies to sauces and other things.”

It’s all revenue Hunton, Hendren and others can count on each year—the business relationships they have with school districts are strong and collaborative, making schools steady customers that are “easy to work with,” Hendren says.

Heritage Specialty Foods provided 40,000 pounds of marinara sauce and 9,000 pounds of two salad dressings to Portland Public Schools during the 2012-2013 school year. A school chef had created a popular, Asian-theme salad dressing called “Dragon sauce” that Heritage Specialty Foods was able to produce in larger batches throughout the district. They also created a balsamic vinaigrette that was not too tart for kids’ taste, and also healthy.

Both dressings were developed exclusively for Portland Public Schools, but Hendren will be able to sell it to other school districts and even the commercial market, something he’s beginning to look into.

Ratliffe says Farm to School’s biggest economic impact lies in how farmers and producers like Hendren are able to take any new products, innovations and ways of engaging clients into a larger market.

 “A processor develops something that they put into schools, and all of a sudden, they can also sell to a larger market,” Ratliffe says. “[Farm to School] instigates that. There’s a definite momentum to that type of thing.”

Correction appended: This article has been revised to clarify the impact of school districts’ local food purchasing on job creation.  For every job created with extra spending at schools for local food, another 1.43 would be created elsewhere in the economy. The original sentence stated school districts purchasing local food can create 2.43 jobs.