Background image of A basket of silver bowls, one filled with salad, one with roasted sweet potatoes and parsnips, one with creamy orange soup; in the background, there is a tray of roasted vegetables.

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10,000 Foot View of a Region

Thinking about farm to school programs:
What's next for the West?

The Western Region is full of pioneers, including in the world of farm to school. It’s led to some magnificent innovation: California birthed the National Farm to School Network; the Oregon legislature created a $1.2 million farm to school and school garden grant program; and from Alaska to Montana, Hawaii to Nevada, our region’s schools spend over $87 million on local food each year.

As the Western Regional Lead Agency for the National Farm to School Network, we at Ecotrust are lucky to work closely with many of the explorers who have charted this new course for farmers and schools in our region.

This year, Ecotrust’s farm to school team is wrapping up a three-year project working directly with school districts and farmers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley to increase purchases of local foods. The project, funded by Kaiser Permanente, was an opportunity to support creative new ideas to move the dial on farm to school, such as Boat to School and Legislators to the Lunchroom. It was also a unique opportunity for our team to build deeper relationships with school food service directors, farmers, and distributors. At the end of our three years, we asked them: Having come this far, what do you need next?

Trays of roasted squash and parnsnips rest on a butcher block table next to a pitcher of yellow oil or butter.

This question also reflects a time of introspection for our team. Almost a decade into our work in farm to school, Ecotrust is looking forward to what’s on the horizon for our region. What will it take to make farm to school the new business as usual at every school, from Anchorage to Boise to Honolulu? We have a lot of resources in place — state leads who act as networking and resource hubs for each of the eight Western states (we even have a few state farm to preschool leads); state farm to school grant programs in Alaska and Oregon; vibrant statewide networks in Hawaii and California; and a rich partnership with our regional counterpart at the USDA, who makes much of this work possible through technical assistance and financial resources.

And yet, when we asked school districts and farmers in the Willamette Valley what they needed next, the answers were familiar. Small budgets, season limitations, a lack of scratch cooking in school kitchens, and the time-consuming nature of building the relationships vital to the work topped the list of challenges for schools and farmers alike.

There are workarounds for each of these obstacles, and they certainly haven’t stopped many school districts and farmers from creating vibrant programs and partnerships. But these ongoing challenges are symptomatic of a more fundamental bottleneck that remains even as we continue to innovate: Our region’s hard infrastructure — the kind that supports the aggregation, processing, and distribution of food — isn’t set up for local suppliers to feed local buyers.

Pineapple in school lunches in Hawaii might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s not that simple. Dexter Kishida, School Food Service Supervisor at the Hawaii State Department of Education explains that most Hawaiian school kitchens don’t have capacity to deal with the whole fruit and that the state lacks local processing capacity at a scale to meet school district needs. The fruit must be shipped off island to be processed into slices and chunks and then sent back (with a resulting impact on cost and affordability for schools). And Dexter notes that this often means that pineapple from South America and the Philippines is more affordable than fruit grown in their own state.

Mardi Solomon of Whatcom County Farm to School relates how students in Washington State are served “baby” shaved carrots from California rather than those grown locally, since school food service programs cannot afford to pay staff for the time it takes to cut whole carrots into sticks. These are just two examples of how the system through which schools, hospitals, and college campuses buy their food in the West isn’t yet conducive to our vision of a resilient, regionally based food system.

Four bunches of carrots with green tops are piled on a surface in front of red and white radishes that are lined up behind them.

We’ve still made significant progress over the past ten years and there are exciting and innovative solutions on the horizon. In Hawaii, Dexter tells the story of a small grower who is setting up a flash freezing facility with the potential to serve the school district’s needs. The facility will process the second and third harvests of pineapples to help provide a product that is more affordable for schools.

In Whatcom County, a new local vegetable processing facility at Cloud Mountain Farm Center is one effort to try to fill the infrastructure gap in Washington by processing local carrots and other veggies into the forms that schools need.

Two farmers look at a large piece of commercial processing equipment at Cloud Mountain Farm Center; they are in a blue, unfinished room.
Farmers check out processing equipment while visiting Cloud Mountain Farm Center last fall on a mobile tour hosted by the Washington Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School program.

It’s clear that school districts and farmers value each other and want to work together, and many of them know how to overcome common challenges to make these relationships work. Now it’s time to rebuild the infrastructure that underlies this work — to shift the entire system so that farm to school and local food procurement is feasible for more than those who are deeply committed.

Focusing our collective attention on improving the methods through which buyers access local food — the aggregation, processing, and distribution that make this procurement possible — is the challenge of the next decade, and has the potential to transform farm to school into the new business as usual. It’s a monumental task, but we’re pioneers, and we’re heading for that horizon.