The Farm to School program began in 1996, with support from the USDA, with a goal of supporting local agriculture and reducing childhood obesity. Since then, it has expanded to all 50 states and more than 45,000 schools nationwide.

Here in Douglas County, several schools have gardens that are used by classes and after school programs, and we’ve recently expanded due to grant awards from Oregon Department of Agriculture. Oregon has the largest Farm to School program in the country, and in 2019, HB2579 received unanimous support in both the House and Senate which increased funding to a record $15 million.

Throughout the month of October, we are celebrating National Farm to School Month by promoting activities and working with schools to get newsletters and information out about the program.

Douglas County received a total of close to $140,000 between four schools and organizations that are being used to build and work with school gardens, work with local farmers to provide produce to students and families and build a hydroponic system in one school.

Across the nation, the average age of farmers is 57 years old and that number is on the rise. Even new farmers have an average age of 47, which means young people are not heading into farming as careers. One of the goals of the Farm to School Program is to educate youth about agriculture and promote young people in farming.

Farmers are innovators, inventors, scientists, veterinarians and wear many other hats. They test their soil to ensure the proper nutrients are present to grow the most perfect fruits and vegetables to bring to our tables.

They rotate cattle and sheep in their pastures very carefully to ensure the proper forage for each animal and they feed their leftovers to their animals to create closed loop agriculture, where all the nutrients are recycled back into the soil.

Youth learn about our natural resources in schools, but the Farm to School program gives them the opportunity to do hands-on experiments and farm field trips to really experience what it’s like to grow their own food.

One of the goals of school gardens is to show youth on a small-scale basis how to grow food and create their own closed loop. School gardens can provide produce to the cafeterias, so the students get to eat what they grew. This cuts down on food costs for schools and cuts down on the consumption of fuels to transport foods.

It also can be used as a tool to teach students about the science of plants by allowing them to follow a seed to fruit, as well as learning about bees and other pollinators. Several of our schools in Douglas County even have kitchen carts where they can cook foods in their classroom, so they can have healthy celebrations with produce they grew.

Celebrate with us by visiting Umpqua Valley Farmers Market and the Food Hero booth to take home an activity kit with local produce and a recipe, and keep your eyes open for additional activities throughout the month of October!

Erin Maidlow is a Farm to School educator at Douglas County OSU Extension and the regional education and procurement hub lead, providing assistance to schools and organizations throughout our region to connect farms to schools.

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