Background image of school lunch try piled high with good healthy food

Farm to School

Connecting small and mid-size farmers with large institutions like schools is a major thrust of Ecotrust's food and farms work. In our farm to school work, we partner with a wide range of school districts, focusing on low-income schools and preschools to ensure that all children have access to healthy, local food. And we advocate for policies that strengthen Oregon’s agricultural economy and create local jobs.

Every day, Julie Mack makes decisions about how to feed the 6,700 students enrolled in the Centennial School District in Gresham, Oregon. Her choices — and the choices of school districts everywhere — are often limited by tight budgets, lack of infrastructure, strict national meal standards, and sometimes, picky customers. But for the past few years, things have been looking brighter and tasting better.

Children at New Day School in SE Portland are laughing and eating lunch at a wooden table.

Julie has brought more local foods into the cafeteria to expand food choices and help support local food producers, thanks in part to a $4.5 million state-funded farm to school grant program.

Ecotrust made the economic and public health case that helped establish that grant program. We also co-founded a vibrant statewide network of over 400 schools, farmers, businesses, state agencies, and other partners to build community around Oregon’s farm to school programs.

And we work directly with Julie, among many others, to help school districts build partnerships with small and mid-sized food producers to transform their menus.

“Ag of The Middle” operations — those too large to sell directly to consumers and too small or differentiated to sell on the commodity markets — are exactly the type needed to serve regional institutions. But these businesses have been disappearing at alarming rates in the last 15 years.  The number of mid-market operations earning between $50,000 and $500,000 dropped 18 percent between 1997 and 2007, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. By building connections and expanding markets, we can help these important regional producers return to viability.

Our farm to school programs also target vulnerable children and families — populations in preschools and low-income school districts.

“We see school lunch as the gateway to critical changes in our food system.”

We take this multi-tiered approach — from local and state to regional and national — because we believe it creates the most far-reaching and long-lasting impacts. We share what we learn from school districts, farmers, and legislators with our partners across the region and the country. As we learn from each other, we accelerate the rate of positive change.

In fact, we see school lunch as the gateway to critical changes in our food system, writ large.

Because public schools serve all students, no matter their family income, and collectively have enormous purchasing power, schools can lead a sea change away from business as usual and towards a new economy: one that offers fresh, healthy food to all residents, living wages and expanded opportunities for farmers, producers and food workers, and methods of food production that renew our resources.

A younng girl harvests grapes from a bright green hedge at Zenger Farm.
Farm to school programs are at their strongest when activities take place in the cafeteria, classroom, and community. Edible gardens, farm field trips, farmers’ markets, and school cafeterias are powerful venues for connecting children and families with real food experiences and teaching them about where food come from and how it’s grown.

Back in the Centennial School District, the connections and opportunities continue to grow: Julie Mack has recently added sustainably caught cod from Astoria, Oregon and fresh vegetables from a local farm to the menu.

“Our kitchen staff is reinvigorated!” Julie says. “Students’ trays are piled high with fruits and veggies. Centennial has seen how food can engage people, create a new sense of community, and be a focal point for health and wellness.”

Ecotrust is committed to helping Centennial and others schools continue to build on their successes and change our food system to benefit communities.

Farm to School resources

Farm to School Counts was built by Ecotrust on behalf of the Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Network (OFSSGN) to track progress and measure success for the farm to school movement in Oregon.

Video: 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. Meet our diverse team of partners who brought this farm to school program to life.

The Impact of Seven Cents
Examining the effects of a $.07 per meal investment on local economic development, lunch participation rates, and student preferences for fruits and vegetables in two Oregon school districts

Farm to School Showcase Toolkit
A guide for connecting local food suppliers with school food buyers at school nutrition trade shows

Growing Farm to Preschool in Your State, a How-to Guide
A state-level approach to farm to preschool is key to bringing local food and garden education to child care centers nationally. Here’s a 5-step guide to constructing a farm to preschool coalition.