School Garden News – Oregon
Students grow lunches
By Jennifer Moody, Albany Democrat-Herald
LEBANON — Lebanon’s summer food program will feature a new entree: salad a la Seven Oak.
Salad greens grown at Seven Oak Middle School have already hit that cafeteria. Now, the greens will be served as part of the free lunches distributed every summer at various locations.
Plenty of schools in the fertile Willamette Valley have gardens, but very few grow food to be consumed by students. That may change as food and transportation prices rise and schools look for new ways to motivate healthy choices.
Students at Seven Oak already had a flower garden and a couple of greenhouses. This spring, teachers Rick George and Mark Gullickson joined forces with several Master Gardeners to dig out the first 55-by-125-foot area for five raised-bed plots. More are planned.
By fall, the garden is expected to be producing two to three bushels of corn, along with tomatoes, strawberries and more for the Seven Oak cafeteria.
“We wanted to get the kids a little more nutrition-conscious, and thought if they planted the seed and watered and actually grow the food, they’re going to be more apt to want to eat nutritionally, we think,” George said.
Definitely, said 12-year-old Crystal Pitney, especially if strawberries are involved. “Are you kidding me?” she said, beaming.
The garden is a community effort. Volbeda Dairy donated manure. Students in the district’s YouthBuild program will help irrigate. Master Gardeners Barbara Rowe, Sheryl Casteen and Walt Rebmann brought the salad green starts, helped plant and did the initial tilling, respectively.
If school were still in session, the 200 pounds of lettuce would be enough to feed the entire district — about 2,500 children — every 10 days until the freezes come, said Pam Lessley, Lebanon’s director of nutrition services.
Not every child has hot lunch at school, and some of those who do choose to skip the vegetables, so it’s hard to know how far the garden will go, Lessley said. Right now, she agrees, all the expected produce wouldn’t cover the entire district on a daily basis, or even Seven Oak’s usual 280 daily diners. But it’s a start, and it’s going to expand, Lessley said. And it may help save on produce, which means more money for other foods.
Said George, one of the teachers: “We have to walk before we can run.”Food prices have skyrocketed in the past months, and school lunch programs are being hit particularly hard.
Milk prices were 13.5 percent higher this April than they were in April 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index. Bread was up 14.1 percent from a year ago. Fruits and vegetables were up 1.4 percent as a group this year, on top of a 4.4 percent hike last year.
The federal government repays schools between 23 cents and $2.47 for every meal served, but only if schools meet certain food-group standards. Cutting corners means risking loss of the reimbursement.
But the reimbursement no longer goes as far, said Joyce Dougherty, director of child nutrition services for the Oregon Department of Education, and cost-of-living increases of 2 to 3 percent aren’t going to keep up. Money that used to pay for 15 cases of applesauce, say, may now cover only 10.
Lebanon, like most of the districts in the mid-valley, is raising meal prices for students this fall. But Lessley worries the situation may be even worse by then.
“Prices have raised dramatically, and almost all of my purveyors are charging a fuel charge ranging from $3 to $5 a stop,” she said. “I have been in food service for 20 years, and it’s the highest it’s ever been.”
Oregon’s lawmakers are getting into the local idea. The Oregon Farm to School act, signed into law last year, created a special position in the Department of Agriculture specifically to develop links between schools and local growers.
Seven Oak’s garden isn’t part of that initiative, but coordinator Cory Schreiber says it’s in line with what the state wants: give farmers a hand, get kids to eat more vegetables and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions by keeping produce closer to home.
Schreiber said he’s heard of a handful of Oregon schools growing produce to eat, but most don’t.
Timing is part of the problem. The bulk of the harvest often comes in summer, when classes aren’t in session. Also, growing for an entire student body every day would take land and labor most districts don’t have.
Safety also could be a concern, said Rick Sherman, director of food service for Greater Albany Public Schools. He said he wouldn’t be convinced that a school meets the same safety standards as a national company.“We get local produce, but through Sysco and reputable dealers,” Sherman said. “If you go through reputable dealers that have $2 million of insurance you’re really covered a lot more.”
But Dougherty, the state’s director, said schools can use the same food-safety practices as the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And sometimes, the locally-grown items are safer than the national ones. Case in point: the salmonella currently prompting fast-food chains to yank all traces of tomatoes.
“What we do know is that kids who work in gardens, whether in school food service or in a tasting party in their classrooms, they eat more fruits and vegetables and try more fruits and vegetables,” she said. “We want schools to have as many gardens as they can.
”Sixth-grader Paige Stagg, of Seven Oak agrees.“I myself have never gardened, so this is a huge new experience for me,” said the 11-year-old, pausing from raking manure into the beds. “Now, if I actually needed to, I could keep going.”