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From farm to cafeteria table

For children’s health and because parents demand it, Ashland schools are buying organic fruit from local growers, teaching children about it and serving it in school lunches, with a goal of getting kids hooked on a lifetime of enjoying nutritious produce.

The Ashland School District last year won a $10,000 biennial grant from the Oregon Department of Education to buy Oregon grown and produced food, but only spent $250, thus leaving new nutrition services director Christina Lehman money to build a network with local members of the Rogue Valley Farm to Schools (RVFS) to have it brought here for the district’s five schools.

“They love it. It’s so important that the children learn to eat well for their whole lives,” says Lehman. Up to 20 percent of the money is being used for educating children on nutrition — and where food comes from — and they often do it by taking kids to Southern Oregon University’s garden across the street from Ashland Middle School and Walker Elementary School. They also use school gardens and visit Willow-Witt Ranch to learn about animal foods.

Ashland School Board member Eva Skuratowicz said feedback from parents strongly supports use of local organic ingredients and, if schools do use it, it increases the attendance at cafeterias (instead of bringing sack lunches), making lunches more affordable, making students healthier and improving the area economy.

The program helps area farmers, who were hard hit by wildfire smoke, causing consumers to skip Growers Markets and U-Pick, said Shiela Carder, executive director of Rogue Valley Farm to Schools.

“Ashland families want to see their kids eating well and this will encourage them to participate in the lunch program, as it creates a larger market, better meals and strengthens health and nutritional values,” says Carder.

These officials on Friday were enjoying the clear skies above Valley View Orchard as they sealed the deal on five weekly cases of ripe peaches for the five schools in the district. Peaches will be the Food of the Month for teachers to dwell on in October, while students have them for lunch. It will be tomatoes in September and pears in November, said Kathy O’Leary, owner of Valley View Orchard.

The program is researching other food groups, trying to find local organic beef, as well as a bakery that can meet standards as whole grain and organic with minimal sugar and salt, said Lehman.

“We’re trying to get children connected to the food system,” says O’Leary, “so they know where food comes from, how it grows and so they get excited about eating healthy, nutritious food.”

A local nonprofit, RVFS has been working with eight area school districts for nearly a decade on the food supply as well as the education component, says Carder. Valley View, along with Fry Family Farm and Naumes are GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified by federal and state agencies for selling to schools.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at

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