After students chose an entree and a flavor of milk in the lunch line at Lava Ridge Elementary on Thursday, they faced one more important choice: Which fresh fruits and vegetables to enjoy today?
Gone are the days of a bruised apple served alongside mystery meat, of tater tots and ketchup counting as a vegetable and fruit.
Throughout the year, students in the Bend-La Pine Schools stand in front of a large fruit and vegetable bar and often get the chance to choose between locally grown wedges of cantaloupe and watermelon, some grabbing dozens of cherry tomatoes and pepper strips. The produce comes through a farm-to-school program, sparked by the same woman who manages the Bend Farmers Market.
“Look at this one,” Wellness Specialist Katrina Wiest said, pointing at a boy who had left his entree on his table and returned to the produce bar to fill his entire plate with watermelon and cantaloupe.
Getting students to eat healthfully is a labor of love for Wiest and the kitchen staff at each school. Wiest, the manager of the Bend Farmers Market for six years, started working for the school district four years ago.
Almost immediately after she started with the district, Wiest approached Terry Cashman, the assistant director of operations for nutrition services, about starting a farm-to-school program, and he gave her the go-ahead.
Wiest approached a variety of farmers at the market, and Jeff Rosenblad of Happy Harvest Farms in Mt. Angel expressed interest in starting up the program.
“I asked him, ‘How much can you do?’ and he said, ‘How much do you want?’” she said.
The district also gets 75 bushels of organic Oregon apples and pears each week from Kimberly Orchards, which is located in Kimberly, three hours east of Bend.
“It went great, so I jumped in with both feet,” Rosenblad said. “It’s just grown larger and larger each year.”
In the beginning, cantaloupes
Four years ago, Rosenblad said, it started with cantaloupe. Then came the watermelons, and now Wiest takes pretty much every crop Happy Harvest Farms grows.
“Since they started serving our food, they say kids eat whole plates of watermelon,” Rosenblad said. “It’s putting food we know kids like in schools.”
All of the schools get the fresh produce. When Rosenblad delivers on Wednesday, his fruits and vegetables are shipped out the next morning and are in students’ meals or in the fruit and vegetable bar for Thursday’s lunch.
What is offered depends on the season. Each week Wiest sends an e-mail to her staff at the schools, and based on their replies she sets up an order.
“It’s not Central Oregon, but it’s pretty darn close,” Wiest said. “It’s harvested on Tuesday, at the market on Wednesday ... and in school lunches by Thursday.”
Direct to the table
Only 3 percent of the total produce that the school district uses actually comes from Mt. Angel and Kimberly. The rest comes from a wholesaler. But organic doesn’t equal pricey.
“It’s not more expensive,” Wiest said. “They meet or beat the wholesale prices, because we’re taking out the middle man. It’s going from the grower direct to the table. Usually it would go from the grower to the shipper, then to a distributor and then to the table.”
Last Wednesday, Rosenblad arrived at 1 p.m. behind the wheel of a truck filled with produce. He stopped at the Bend-La Pine distribution center first, with watermelons and cantaloupes, celery and zucchini, tomatoes and peppers.
“I have a surprise for you,” Rosenblad said as he backed the forklift away from the final load.
“Strawberries,” she said. “Imagine, in October.”
After that Rosenblad headed to Sisters, which also runs a farm-to-school program, before returning to Mt. Angel. He has been selling so much to the school districts and colleges around Oregon that he doesn’t have enough produce for the farmers market anymore.
Starting this week, Rosenblad will start delivering broccoli and cauliflower, and the watermelon and cantaloupe will disappear for another year.
When it starts to freeze in Mt. Angel and there are no more crops to bring to Bend, the program will cease until March.
The farm-to-school program is one of the ways that Wiest and the district are trying to teach healthy eating to students from a young age.
Each day students have at least three fresh fruits and vegetables to choose from, as well as two canned options. Usually the produce is the first food that students see, and Wiest said many fill their plates before they even get to the pizza and corn dogs.
The consumption of fruits and vegetables is unlimited. Students can go back for more fruits and vegetables as many times as they like.
Choice is the name of the game. Wiest said that at the elementary level, students have at least five entree choices each day. At the secondary level, it’s more like 20 options.
With 15,000 meals to serve each day, it’s not an easy task.
Wiest is in charge of setting 27 menus, which includes all the local schools as well as some private schools that contract with the district, snacks and breakfast menus for certain schools, and Head Start programs.
Food from scratch
The school district also is fairly unique in that it makes most everything from scratch that is served to the kids. While the district does get food like corn dogs and french fries from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it also runs a full bakery where graveyard shift workers make bread products, cookies and granola each night and with low fat and whole wheat ingredients.
All of the sauces are made from scratch, as well as the chili. And the district strives to lower the calorie and fat content in meals as well, using brown rice, hot dogs made of turkey and corn dogs with chicken meat. The district even makes a low-fat ranch sauce that students use as veggie dip. All of the meals served in Bend-La Pine Schools are made up of no more than 30 percent fat, 10 percent saturated fat and 1,200 milligrams of sodium. While many of the students who brought lunch from home Thursday dined on Ding-Dongs and packaged cheese products, students who bought hot lunch were, at least on Thursday, on the right side of the battle of the bulge.
“If they eat vegetables with ranch, I don’t care,” Wiest said. “At least they’re eating them.”
The school district also buys local milk products from Eberhard’s Dairy, including root beer milk, which the kids get once a month.
Change is slow
The program has been slow to catch on in Oregon, according to the National Farm to School Network, but nationwide there are more than 1,100 farm-to-school programs. And in Oregon, the Legislature is currently working on several bills that would give up to 7 cents back to the district for every school meal that has Oregon products in it and would also create a farm-to-school program within the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
It’s a bill that Wiest supports, because she hopes that more people will experience what fresh produce tastes like.
“I had a staff person call me from La Pine and say there was a boy there who had never had a fresh blueberry before,” Wiest said, laughing.