What better time to celebrate the connections being made between kids and local food than October with the harvest season at its height and the school year in full swing. The Willamette Farm and Food Coalition’s Farm to School Program is actively working with the Bethel, Eugene, Springfield and Oakridge school districts to educate students about where their food comes from, provide their families with resources to access healthy, locally grown foods and assist district Nutrition Services in incorporating more locally grown foods into school meals.
Our education program is provided to students in six schools, prioritizing the schools in Lane County with the highest percentage of students in poverty. Students receive a lesson on where food comes from and the health, environmental and community benefits of eating from farms close to home. Students participate in farm field trips and prepare a snack or meal with food they harvested themselves at the farm. They also receive classroom nutrition lessons focused on fruits and vegetables, and sessions in their school garden during which they have the opportunity to plant, nurture, harvest and eat vegetables. (School garden sessions are provided by our partner organization, the School Garden Project of Lane County.)
We know the program is needed. Many of the families in the schools we serve do not have the resources to provide healthy meals at home, and for some, free school meals are the only nutrition their children reliably receive. Many children don’t know where food comes from and have never seen food growing in a field, tasted fresh organic produce or even tried most vegetables. After participating in our program, students show enthusiasm for eating fruits and vegetables, as well as increased knowledge of where their food comes from and how it is grown.
It’s exciting to provide kids with these experiences, but we know it’s only part of the work of education and inclusion. The majority of students in the schools we serve are living in poverty. Low-income families struggle to put food on the family table, and often lack the resources to explore their options for accessing locally grown food. Introducing children to local food can be a transformative moment. Helping low income families learn how to access nutritious locally grown food can transform that moment into change that lasts a lifetime.
To foster this change, in 2012 we broke new ground by establishing our Farm to School Family Outreach project to bring the bounty of the Willamette Valley’s harvest into the kitchens of low-income families. Farm to School staff and volunteers coordinate family field trips to local farms and farmers markets. Families receive produce to take home, coupons for use at farmers markets or farm stands in their area, and information about how to use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits at these locations. Families also receive Oregon Harvest for Schools Family Newsletters, which encourage the consumption of locally grown fruits and vegetables at home.
In addition to educating kids and families, Willamette Farm and Food Coalition is also working with these districts to support them in incorporating locally grown foods into school meals. During the 2012-13 school year the Bethel, Eugene, Springfield and Oakridge school districts purchased Oregon-grown and processed products valued at $877,115. These numbers are increasing every year. The Bethel School District is a leader in Oregon; 33 percent of the district’s purchases came from Oregon farms and processors last school year. Bethel, Springfield and Oakridge all received grants this year from the Oregon Department of Education to purchase Oregon-grown and processed products and to provide food and garden based education.
Farm-to-school efforts connect kids to the source of their food and support local farms in the process. By educating kids about where their food comes from, providing their families with resources and opportunities to access fresh, healthy produce and assisting school districts in procuring locally grown products we are strengthening our local food system, which leads to healthier children and a stronger community.