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A school district unites around food

Welcome to the Salem-Keizer School District in Oregon, where 40,000 students are eating more healthy, local food and learning in school gardens, cafeterias, and classrooms.

For the past decade, Ecotrust has run an active farm to school program, yet we are neither a farm nor a school. What is farm to school, what work do we do, and how does it impact local farmers and kids?

This past fall, Ecotrust wrapped up a three-year project funded by Kaiser Permanente, helping 36 low-income school districts in our region bring farm to school programs to life. As the project concluded, we zoomed in on the Salem-Keizer School District, where local food procurement and a school-based aquaculture program have taken off, to share a slice of this work. We hope this gives a window into our work and its impact.

Welcome to the Salem-Keizer School District in Oregon, where 40,000 students are eating more healthy, local food and learning in school gardens, cafeterias, and classrooms. Meet our diverse team of partners who brought this farm to school program to life.

Our work in Salem is one component of a much larger project in both Oregon and Washington.

What did we do?

In fall 2011, Ecotrust reached out to 36 school districts in the Pacific Northwest wherein 50 percent or more of the student body qualified for free or reduced lunch — a proxy for low-income — and 110 regional farmers and food suppliers.

Over the following three years, Ecotrust…

  • held a total of 19 farm to school capacity-building meetings with more than 90 school district staff, food suppliers, and community partners;
  • provided 182 documented instances of technical assistance to more than 55 school districts, local food suppliers, and community partners;
  • coordinated three school food trade shows;
  • and partnered with Upstream Public Health to bring eight legislators to the lunchroom, which helped secure $1.2 million in state funding for farm to school in 2013.
a woman sits on a bench inside a greenhouse wearing a bright blue sweatshirt that reads
Brenda Knobloch, the School Garden Coordinator for the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation (SKEF), finds purpose and joy teaching kids in the garden. She and SKEF were critical partners in the farm to school coalition that formed in the Salem-Keizer School District.

What changed?

According to the final survey responses from 16 school districts…

  • 53% indicated that they had increased the amount of dollars spent on local food since working with Ecotrust. Those districts serve 69,674 students.
  • 61% reported an increase in the number of new relationships or contacts they now have with local food suppliers.
  • 35% began purchasing local foods during this project.
  • 15 districts, serving 92,550 students, indicated that they made changes to their operations to procure and/or serve local food.

According to the final survey responses from 37 local food suppliers…

  • 26 now value, are more committed to, and/or better understand how to work with schools.
  • 21 indicated that they made changes to their operations to better accommodate working with schools.
Three elementary school kids at the Urban Ag Fest post with silly faces.
Salem-Keizer students visit Parrish Middle School for Urban Ag Days, when activities related to agriculture align with school curriculum and everyone gets to harvest from the school garden.

We also learned that…

Schools increasingly value and know how to buy local food. Farmers are not at the same level of readiness to sell to schools.

Over the past decade, Oregon farm to school practitioners, including Ecotrust, have focused much of our work on readying school districts to buy from local farmers, and less on readying farmers to sell to schools. Not surprisingly as a result, 65% of the school districts we worked with were already buying some local food before this project began, while only 35% of farmers were already selling to schools. We look forward to building on this work in the future by doing more targeted work to ready producers for institutional markets.

Schools are paving the way for all institutions.

Building on our success with schools, Ecotrust has begun forming partnerships with other institutional food buyers such as hospitals, the Department of Corrections, universities, and corporate campuses, in order to increase their spending within our local food economy.

A little help = a lot of value.

Our ability to help school districts plan, write, and implement state farm to school grants helped them secure more than $500,000 in additional funds for farm to school.

Systems change takes time.

It was rewarding to have the opportunity to partner with school districts and producers over three years, so that we could reap some of the rewards of seeds that were planted three, five, and even ten years ago. Looking back on this project energizes us for the next three plus years, and the potential that they hold.

This work was made possible in part by

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