Agricultural fields surround communities in the Klamath Basin yet many of the region’s youth don’t connect with farming and don’t appreciate or understand how food is grown, how it tastes and how it arrives at their table. Farm to School Programs can increase children’s access to healthier foods, especially fruits and vegetables, as well as increase their exposure to healthful, local foods. Increased use of local foods in school meals and educational activities can also provide new markets for local growers, leading to job creation and economic growth.
In 2017, Oregon State University’s Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center partnered with the Klamath county and city school districts and the YMCA of Klamath Falls to provide a series of experiential activities for students. Each month the students tasted a new food that is grown in Oregon, such as corn, potatoes, carrots, grains and berries. With the help of OSU Extension Service Master Gardeners, students also learned about the science of plants and practice growing them in mobile garden carts. They learned how to prepare Oregon-grown foods in cooking classes. OSU Extension educators connected local growers to the classrooms as guest speakers and farm tours.
Students combined to taste 9,000 samples of Oregon-grown food. More than 1,500 students had several opportunities to experience, learn and taste where food in Oregon is grown and processed. Nearly 400 of these students received extensive education about where food is grown, how it is grown and how it is cooked. As a result of this project, Klamath County has a farm-to-school model that can be used in schools throughout southern Oregon.
That model has expanded to a dozen counties in every region of the state. The Oregon Farm to School and School Garden program got a shot in the arm in 2019 when the Oregon Legislature unanimously voted to increase funding for farm-to-school grants for the 2020-2021 biennium from $4.6 million to $15 million.
During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Klamath County came up with creative alternatives to face-to-face experiences. Extension faculty and staff from multiple programs came together in the spring to match virtual learning activities with 75 “Grow and Cook” take-home kits that were distributed to families in the Klamath Falls School District. District teachers used a Farm to School and Nutrition Education website to conduct virtual lessons related to the kits.
“There are lots of branches to what we did,” said Patty Case, professor and Extension faculty in the Family and Community Health Program in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “Our main emphasis continued to be connecting kids with how to grow food and how to prepare it, and where our food comes from.”