Four years ago, under the fluorescent lights of the Salem Conference Center, I stood at a table heaped with Oregon apples free for the taking, trying to catch the eyes of some 300 school district food service staff. I found myself engulfed by the scents of hot pizza and french fries and the sound of clanging metal warming trays. The attendees of this annual trade show have the daunting task of collectively serving meals to over 300,000 Oregon schoolchildren, many of whom rely on school meals as their primary form of sustenance.
My goal was to encourage these food buyers to begin building relationships with local farmers, food processors, and distributors and to use Farm to School programming to revolutionize their menus in support of our local agricultural economy.
But much as it can be hard to coax a kid to choose a carrot when a chicken nugget is within reach, it was equally difficult to lure these food buyers from the hot food samples that other vendors had to offer. And so, as my crisp apples remained untouched, I became determined to make it easier for local food suppliers to have a strong presence at this trade show, and for school food buyers to make new relationships closer to home. So many decisions are made within those halls. How could we make it possible for local food to be a viable option, when up against powerful national food companies?
For the last three years, we’ve transformed the entrance to this conference into a hall of Oregon ranchers and fishermen, farmers and food processors, and suppliers of local grains, fruits, vegetables, meat, and more. We call it the Farm to School Showcase, and within this hall, Oregon’s farmers and food suppliers meet and connect with school food buyers face-to-face. We entice conference attendees with a Farm to School trivia game, support vendors with scholarships to attend, and make it easier for those 300,000 daily meals to include a little bit more local food.
As a result of connections made over the past several years, the Bend-LaPine School District is now purchasing Oregon-grown wheat from Camas Country Mill near Eugene; Salem-based Truitt Brothers is supplying locally-grown beans to cafeterias across the state; and school food service staff have an abundance of new sources for fresh and frozen local produce.
I’m excited to introduce the Farm to School Showcase Toolkit, published by Ecotrust, in which we’ve compiled our resources and lessons learned, typed up our checklists, and included lots of photos from the past three years. This toolkit makes it easier for Farm to School and sustainable food advocates in every state to put on Showcases of their own, paving the way for more local producers to make headway in the school food market.
In Oregon, that means approximately 300,000 meals per day, but nationally it’s over 31 million. That’s an $8.5 billion annual market. The potential impact of putting more of those dollars into the pockets of local food producers is astounding.
Together, school districts across the country have the power to radically shift institutional purchasing away from business as usual and towards the vision of a new economy represented by those Oregon apples – one that offers fresh, healthy food to all residents, economically viable food value chains that fairly compensate and respect the dignity of all participants, and methods of food production that renew our resources. Our schools are the place to start.