State legislation that helps local schools improve student nutrition has garnered national attention. One federal official says House Bill 2649, Oregon’s farm-to-school bill, will “turbo charge” the relationship between schools and local farmers in an effort to bring more fresh produce into children’s diets.

“This is another great example of where Oregon leads with a willingness to try something new,” said Kevin Concannon, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. “It is another state pioneering practice that I think will be picked up by more progressive states across the country.”

The Oregon Legislature passed the bill in July and doubled its total funding on the last day of the legislative session. The bill provides about $1.2 million in grants during the 2013-15 biennium for schools to purchase produce from local farmers and educate students about where their food comes from.

“Good nutrition fires up those brains of students in the classroom,” Concannon said. “Eating healthy, nutritious food is something that will stay with them for a lifetime.”

The Hillsboro School District was awarded a grant of about $40,000 that will be used over two years to buy produce through the Hillsboro Farmers’ Market, said Cindy Longway, the district’s nutrition services director.

Free Orchards and Eastwood elementary schools were selected to participate in the Oregon Farm to School and School Garden program, which has provided grants to other school districts since 2011. Longway noted that Hillsboro schools already provide fresh fruits and vegetables for student lunches, but said the additional funds will increase the district’s ability to offer locally grown selections.

Longway said the program will launch as soon as the first cool-season crops are available, such as romaine lettuce for salads. Other foods could include sweet peas, berries, cucumbers and tomatoes as the harvest moves into warmer months.

“Education is a big piece of the program,” Longway said. “When children go to the grocery store, they see the food but don’t actually know it might have been grown by a local farmer.”

Student field trips to farms and other learning activities will coincide with the arrival of new items on school menus, Longway added.

The state farm-to-school grant program is still in its infancy. Originally proposed in 2007 and first funded at $189,000 during the 2011 legislative session, the program is a joint effort by the state agriculture and education departments.

HB 2649 provides a major funding increase at $1.2 million, but the goal is to fully fund the grant program at $22 million bi-annually, said Michelle Ratcliffe, farm-to-school program manager with the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Ratcliffe said the state develops teaching materials, TV and radio spots, and other promotions that celebrate agriculture and get Oregon families growing and eating Oregon fare.

“Just because you serve it doesn’t mean kids will eat it,” Ratcliffe said. “They need to have multiple positive experiences with food.”

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