By Mitchell Willetts

The Enterprise

A statewide program encouraging schools to buy food from Oregon farmers and producers was recently saved in the Legislature, allocating $4.5 million to participating schools, including in Malheur County.

The money will be split among 144 school districts to help cover the cost of buying locally grown or processed food. The program faced being cut.

"Oregon foods are often more expensive than food that comes from California or elsewhere," said Megan Kemple, state director of the National Farm to School Network. "The idea is that the grants pay that extra little bit of cost.”

She recently testified to legislators that $1.6 milion in state grants in 2015-2016 resulted in $15 million in spending on Oregon food by schools.

"Farm to School is a win-win-win. It's good for communities. It's good for kids," she said. "It's good for farmers. The program supports Oregon agriculture by providing a market for them."

About two-thirds of school districts in Oregon participate, accounting for 90 percent of school lunches served in the state, she said.

From the last school year, Nyssa, Adrian and Vale schools served 205,320 meals made with ingredients from Oregon businesses.

Nyssa is entering its third year of the program, which has made fresh, healthy food much more affordable, food service director Gina Freel said.

"The main thing is they're getting fresher food at the salad bar," she said, though the benefits don't stop there. "There are local farmers we're supporting. Some of the kids that go to our school, their parents are the ones that are growing that produce."

Roughly twenty percent of the Farm to School funding goes toward schools that teach classes on agriculture and farming.

"A lot of kids think food comes from the grocery store or from a package. They don't understand that pretty much everything we eat, someone had to grow," Kemple said.

The Farm to School program wound up on the Ways and Means Committee chopping block in April, when the state was looking to cut spending.

Kemple took the lead on rescuing the program. She not only succeeded in maintaining the same amount of funding from the previous year, she won expansion of funding for more schools to teach agriculture.