The school lunch menu in the Bend-LaPine School District looks more like fine dining under a new program that delivers local seafood to Central Oregon cafeterias.
Menu items include Oregon shrimp salad loaded with tomato, cucumber, cauliflower, a hard-boiled egg, and a lemon wedge, and baked ginger-soy Dover sole served over coconut rice and topped with fresh pineapple salsa.
School district wellness specialist Katrina Wiest said the new dishes have gone over quite well with students.
“Their eyes eyes got big when they saw the shrimp,” she said. “They were like, ‘Shrimp? Really?’”
A grant stemming from the 2011 Farm to School & School Garden Bill allowed Bend-area schools to add seafood to the mix of local food offerings for a few months this year.
The idea behind funding farm to school programs was to support the state’s food producers economically while improving school lunches, but they can also have the added environmental benefit of fewer transportation miles and lower-impact food production.
Bend schools’ shrimp and sole fish is coming from Bornstein Seafoods of Astoria, and it’s being incorporated into the schools’ regular lunches of fettucini alfredo and clam chowder as well as its own stand-alone dishes such as blackened sole with black beans and rice.
“It’s a wonderful source of protein, and it’s low in fat,” Wiest said. “About 41 percent of our students receive free or reduced lunches, so seafood may not be an option for them at their dinner tables at home.”
Even with the grant, the school district still had to pinch pennies to afford the luxury of local seafood. Shrimp and sole are low-cost seafood items compared with salmon, tuna or Dungeness crab.
Oregon schools normally have about a dollar per meal to spend on lunch food, Wiest said, and a serving of tuna alone costs 96 cents.
The $27,000 in grant funds for her district’s new “Boat to School” program will run out in May, when a capstone educational event will feature fishermen teaching students about their fishing practices.
A new bill in the Legislature this session proposes to expand grant funding for farm to school and school garden programs from $189,140 in 2011 to $5 million for 2013-2015.
Emily Ritchie, the FoodCorps fellow with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, has ushered the Boat to School program to fruition since last fall. She said it took some extra work to get cuts of fish that would meet school lunch protein requirements, and to get kids on board.
“It’s a big leap of faith to serve fish to kids but the kids are getting into it,” she said. “You kind of have to explain why this thing that smells like fish is so awesome.”
Stacey Sobell, farm to school manager for Ecotrust, said “center of the plate” protein items are a new focus for schools looking to serve local lunch food, and seafood is gaining traction in a handful of schools nationwide.
“This is a big new area that’s really taking off,” she said.
The Centennial School District in outer east Portland has ventured into serving local seafood with cod purchased through Flying Fish in Portland, on top of its participation in a CSA with local Dancing Roots Farm.
Right now, Sobell said, grants are key to making more local food available to schools. But even if they run out, she said she hopes the schools will keep their relationships with producers and incorporate some local food purchases into their budgets.
“This kicks it off and gives people new connections,” she said. “Portland schools can still serve local, natural beef even if it’s only once in awhile.”