A recent school lunch at Abernethy Elementary School in Portland: rice and beans, house-made salsa, cilantro, sour cream, fruit and salad.

A recent school lunch at Abernethy Elementary School in Portland: rice and beans, house-made salsa, cilantro, sour cream, fruit and salad.

Paula Crago

If you’re a K-12 student in Oregon, it’s time to say goodbye to sloppy Joes and hello to locally grown kale and Tillamook cheese. Thanks to a big boost from the state Legislature, Oregon’s Farm to School program is going statewide.

The program itself isn’t new. The initiative, which reimburses schools for buying locally grown or processed food, was created in 2011 as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program. The program launched with a shoestring budget of only $200,000. During the 2013 legislative session, that number more than quadrupled, and the state’s latest budget approval brings total funding for the program to just above $4.5 million. That’s enough to expand access to locally grown or processed foods from just 19 school districts to the entire state.

“The intent was to be able to spread it around and have everybody take advantage of this,” Rick Sherman, a Farm to School specialist with the Oregon Department of Education told OPB’s Dave Miller during Think Out Loud. “The locally grown and processed food can tend to be more expensive. And rather than encouraging folks to buy stuff from who knows where, we really wanted to encourage people to buy Oregon.”

Beyond supporting the local economy and helping schools gain access to healthy food, 20 percent of the grant will also go toward funding garden-based education. That’s great news for a state that already hosts no less than 605 school gardens.

Gitta Grether-Sweeney is the director of nutrition services for Portland Public Schools. She said that garden-based education can significantly improve student’s eating habits.

“When they see how the food is grown and where it comes from and then they actually get to taste it, we find they’re much more likely to eat it,” she said.

Sherman also lauded the state’s efforts to improve access to garden-based education. He said he hopes that student’s enthusiasm for healthy food will expand beyond Oregon schools.

“We’re teaching them to make better decisions rather than just eating whatever. Hopefully they’re bringing these messages home and even telling mom about it,”  he said.

In the past, Sherman said, similar programs in Colorado, Alaska, and California have failed. Now, Oregon is poised to be a leader for other states looking to implement or improve Farm to School lunches. Sherman said he has already talked to dozens of state agencies looking to replicate Oregon’s success.

“I honestly believe Oregon is a trendsetter.”