From the Field to the Lunchroom

Students make their way through a cabbage patch while on a field trip to a farm.
Photo courtesy of: Willamette Farm and Food Coalition.

At River Road Elementary in Eugene, small changes are taking place during lunchtime. Locally grown produce and dairy products are beginning to pop up next to the hamburgers, tater tots, and pizza students are used to. Tasting tables filled with fresh fruits and vegetables are set up where kids get to sample fruits and vegetables grown on a farm down the road from their school. These students are not only encouraged to try the foods, but are educated on the importance of heating healthy through the National Farm to School Network. Students walk among cabbage during a farm to school field trip. Photo Courtesy of Willamette Farm and Food Coalitition

“It’s so important that they [kids] see more than the food that’s in the grocery store.” Elizabeth Wettlaufer says. Wettlaufer has a son at River Road Elementary and is hopeful that the movement takes a bigger hold within the district. Currently, very few menu items served are grown or made locally.

As childhood obesity and diabetes becomes more of a problem for the younger generation, finding a way to teach kids about proper nutrition and how to stay healthy has come into the political and social forefront. River Road, one of the first 4-J schools to work with the program, was targeted because 76% of the students qualify for the free or reduced lunch program. This means that between two parents, less than $12,000 is made in income per year. Molly Bullock serves as the Farm to School Education Coordinator for the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition and works with many of the families in the district.

“The families we are working with are what we call food insecure,” Bullock says. “It’s hard when you’re a mother of six, and you’re making $6,000 a year, you aren’t going to go buy broccoli because that won’t feed your family.”

Bringing locally grown foods into the classroom began back in 2007, when the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition teamed up with several local organizations and the 4-J School district. River Road and Cesar E. Chavez Elementary were the two schools targeted for the program that includes education and field trips, but the locally grown food extends across the district. At first 4-J worked with Thistledown Farms, Deck Family Farm, Umpqua Dairy, and Organically Grown Company (local organic food distributor) to bring the locally grown food into the lunchroom. As the program grew, it became more difficult to get enough produce to where it was needed. Local farms in the area have had problems keeping up with the demand, price, and the production practices necessary to work with the school district.

Students gathering produce to take back to school.
Photo courtesy of: Willamette Farm and Food Coalition.

Gathering crops to bring back to school is one part of the puzzle that makes up the farm to school program. Photo courtesy of: Willamette Farm and Food Coalitition“We have to make sure they’re insured and bonded and know all of the safety practices,” Keith Fiedler, Director of 4-J Nutrition Services says. “Then we try to make a deal where we can meet at a price that works for everyone.”

According to the National Farm to School Network, in 2009, the 4-J school district brought 1,340 pounds worth of produce into schools around the district. In 2010, that number increased tenfold to 14,252 pounds. While this number is significant, the vegetables, fruits, and dairy that come from the local farms are often add-ons to other products that are processed and shipped in. Distribution companies like Sysco bring in processed foods from across the country and the world which are then served to the students. These foods must meet the standards of the district for quality, price, and nutrition content, but are made so minimal preparation must be done at the schools.

“Most of the schools have gone away from the whole kitchen setup and have moved towards using microwaves and heating systems to prepare the food,” Bullock says. Most of the local produce that is brought must be easily processed to be made available to students. “Things like carrots and fruits are easy to put into the lunches,” Bullock adds. “The [salad] greens and green beans or berries are minimal and are easy to cook. Schools don’t have the capacity to use whole potatoes.”

To go along with the food handed out during lunch, students are given lessons on nutrition and local farming. Each year, the third graders of River Road are taught about how important it is to eat healthy, and where their food comes from. The lessons are held in the fall and the spring and are paired with day long field trips out to local farms. Most recently, River Road went out to Thistledown to view the fall crop. The students go out with the farmers to view the ins and outs of farm life. They then help to harvest a crop, and bring some of the produce back to school where they get to make lunch. The menu items from this trip are easy for the students to make, and leaves them with a healthy recipe to take home. In the past, they’ve made soups, salads, and fresh salsa.

During a field trip to a local farm, students bring back both fresh produce and a sense of accomplishment.
Photo courtesy of: Willamette Farm and Food Coalition.

“I’ve never seen kids so excited about eating and it’s really nice to have creative control over your food,” Bullock says. “Eating is at the root of who we are and it’s a really essential but really beautiful experience.” Students take home fresh produce, and a sense of accomplishment while out on a farm to school field trip. Photo courtesy of: Willamette Farm and Food Coalitition

Education for the students is a crucial aspect for the program, but teaching them how to eat healthy can only go so far. A majority of the students in the targeted areas come from poor families that cannot afford to buy the healthiest options. Cheap processed foods off the store shelves can feed a family, while fresh produce at the same price can only feed one or two. In order to combat this problem, the Farm to School Network works with farms that frequent the Lane County Farmers Market or have a roadside stand and take EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) cards. That way families with limited income on these programs can buy healthy foods as well.

“We’re trying to make it so this become habitual,” Bullock says. “We can change knowledge really well, it’s changing behavior that’s extremely difficult. In order to change behavior we have to get the families involved, the parents make the decisions on what the kids eat.”

Schools in the 4-J district face a number of challenges when it comes to gathering locally grown food. Peak growing season is in the summer, when school isn’t in session, and preserving the produce can be difficult. Purchasing food at the quantities needed, being able to afford the product, and finding a way to get kids to eat healthy are all pieces of the puzzle that the district is still trying to figure out. Progress is constantly being made, but it all depends on whether the system can accommodate the communities need, and at the end of the day, the district has to serve food that the students are willing to eat.

“As we look at items, we have the responsibility to get what customers want. The customers are kids, communities, families, staff, USDA and they all define the range of foods that we can hand out,” Fiedler says. “Every purchase of every food you make is like buying stock in the stock market.”

SIDEBAR: The Process
When the 4-J school district is looking for fresh, locally grown produce, they look to nearby farms. Last Fall, they worked with Lochmead farms to bring a crop of fresh blueberries to the lunchroom. “There are months where farmers walk out into the field, and there are blueberries to pick, but they don’t have enough buyers to pick what’s ripe on the vine,” Fiedler says. Without a buyer, the farmers couldn’t afford to pay employees to pick the fruit and the berries would rot on the vine. The district buys this extra crop at a reduced rate, and none of the farmers crop goes to waste.

The farm picks and processes the crop and the berries are processed into jams and jellies or kept whole. The district then trucks the berries to it’s commercial freezers where they store all of their food items.

“We help create a trickle down affect,” Fiedler says. “The farmers get to pay employees, we get fresh produce, and the students get a healthy meal.” By freezing the produce, the district ensures that their will be healthy items for the students to eat even outside of the growing season. Then, when the school is in need of a menu item, the berries can be defrosted and served to students across the district.

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