Farm-to-School: A Closer Look at HB 2800

Kyle Curtis Facebook

Policymakers are continually seeking legislation that serves as the proverbial “magic wand” that, when waved, could have a positive effect on multiple issues. For example, an economic policy that lowers taxes and also increases revenues. Or a trade policy that expands markets abroad while creating jobs domestically. Or perhaps a natural resources policy that balances resource conservation with resource extraction. Needless to say, creating a piece of public policy that serves as such a “magic wand” is easier said than done.

So when a piece of legislation comes along that positively addresses multiple issues, it should receive a broad base of support from a variety of backgrounds. It appears that HB 2800- the Farm to School Bill currently sitting in the Ways and Means Committee- fits this mold of a legislative “magic wand.” A recent health impact assessment released by Upstream Public Health makes clear the tremendous positive impact HB 2800 on both the diets of Oregon schoolchildren and the economic livelihood of rural Oregonians.

“[HB 2800] has a shot of getting passed,” states Mel Rader, the co-director of Upstream Public Health. “Every budget bill is tough [to get passed], but this bill has better prospects as it has bipartisan support and seeks no new money from the general fund.” Indeed, HB 2800 seeks to appropriate $2 million from the state’s lottery fund- which are funds that is all ready allocated- to reimburse school districts fifteen cents for every school lunch served that is comprised of foods produced or processed in Oregon.

Previous estimates of HB 2800’s economic impact is that $100 million would be pumped into Oregon’s rural economy. The health impact assessment released by Upstream Public Health suggests a smaller economic impact of nearly $20 million generated over the bill’s first biennium, which is still an incredible return for a $2 million appropriation. Upstream’s findings suggest that 267 new full & part-time jobs will be created by this bill, with nearly three jobs for each direct job created. “This is a conservative estimate,” explains Dr. Tia Henderson, the assessment's coordinator and co-author. “This is just one of several multipliers produced by our impact-planning model that considered nearly all available state economic data. The model measured how the state’s economy functions over a period of time, and considers the effect of factors such as rural versus urban, or buying local versus not buying local. The general economic impact of this bill strongly effects Oregon’s rural economy- the bill’s effect on food processing in particular would impact rural areas.” (NOTE: This estimate of jobs created was based on a previous version of the legislation that was not amended by the House. The current version of HB 2800 was amended a week before the release of Upstream's health impact assessment, and they have revised their job creation numbers to 24 total direct and indirect jobs created for a $1.75 million investment.)

Suzanne Briggs, the co-chair of the Oregon farm-to-school/ school-gardens task force, further explains the job creation figure: “This legislation shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as a tool for job creation, but instead it continues research or a pilot program at three or four school districts in the state. HB 2800 will help provide additional data and help us fine tune the process for purchasing local food. This way we will continue to educate ourselves how to do this without burdening the school districts or Department of Education.”

A key finding of the health impact assessment is that Oregonians “currently demand food produced and processed by alternative methods.” When asked to offer a further explanation of what are the “alternative methods” that Oregonians are demanding, Henderson offered: “The responses provided were collected by those individuals who participated in community forums and in the health assessment. Some people didn’t really care how the food was grown, saying: ‘We just want to buy food from Oregon. Period.’ Ultimately, the idea of “alternative methods” of production covered a variety of variables, including farming practice, geographic distance, hormone-free, etc. While I can’t say that all Oregonians in general want food produced by alternative methods in school lunches, overwhelmingly the participants in this assessment stated this desire.”

Briggs offered a perspective about what kind of food Oregonians in certain parts of the state are able to easily access. According to Briggs, “A diverse agriculture sector is a good thing. We need to provide choices to school districts depending on where they reside in the state- those on the east side of Oregon have food transportation costs that those in Corvallis don’t. If we were stringent about what could be purchased, we would be regulating what a community can and cannot offer depending on where they are. For example, only corn-fed beef might be easily available, so we wouldn’t want to limit purchases to grass-feed beef.”

Although HB 2800 would positively benefit student health and the state’s rural economy, the environmental impact of this bill is minimal. Increasing Oregon food products in school lunches turns out to have little impact on the energy produced by the state’s food system. According to Dr. Henderson, “It was definitely a surprise that buying local Oregon products did not reduce greenhouse gases. The literature relating to climate change and the transit of food miles is under debate, as it is an energy-balancing act between food production and distribution.” To make this point clear, Briggs described the number of trips a small farmer would need to take to provide the needs of a school district opposed to an 18-wheeler coming up from California or a distribution center.

Right now, HB 2800 is sitting in the Ways and Means Committee, with a murky legislative future. According to Upstream's Mel Rader, no future hearings or work sessions are currently scheduled for the bill. And while the state received the pleasant news of an unanticipated budget surplus for the 2011-2013 budget, these unexpected funds doesn’t guarantee that HB 2800 will be allotted the $2 million from the lottery general fund. “We were hoping there would be a $150 million surplus,” said Briggs. “Instead, we’re looking at $130 million.” Rader is optimistic about the bill’s passage. “I’m hopeful there will be some funds available. It definitely has a shot.” If you are interested in having HB 2800 and the “magic wand” effects of the Farm-to-School legislation passed into law, contact the Ways and Means Committee and encourage the bill’s passage.

Update, June 2nd, 2:00 p.m.: Updated with correct job creation estimates based on the current amended version of HB 2800.

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    Oof. What a mess. I need more info.

    First off, what is 'composed of' in regards to this bill? If they include a Oregon carrot in the mixed vegetables, does that count? Or if they use some cooking spray not made in Oregon, does that discredit the entire thing?

    Also, a bit off-put by the whole 'processed or packaged' language. So I could fly strawberries here from Guatamala, and slap a label on the side, and suddenly they are 'from Oregon'? How is this helping local farmers and not big producers? I'm pretty sure that Armark can buy an automated label machine...

    I don't buy the greenhouse gas argument, either. As described, it sounds like they are comparing a single trip by semi up to the distributing center, and none of the delivery trips there (also, how does the food get to the place in California anyway? Just magically appear on the shelves?)

    Finally, I am not sure how this is not going to end up just improving the situation of affluent suburban schools (which are coincidentally, closer to the farms) and be quickly forgotten by the more inner city schools where this is desperately needed.

    This is a fantastic idea, but really needs some serious consideration before it becomes law.

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    Language from Upstream's full health impact assessment re: reimbursement:

    HB 2800 does not mandate that schools have to buy Oregon products. The bill gives schools the option to be reimbursed if they buy Oregon products. The legislation specifies that schools can only receive state dollars if they spend the same amount or more of federal dollars on Oregon foods, which effectively doubles the amount of money schools are required to spend within the state. The legislation also specifies that state dollars can only be used to purchase new foods and cannot be used to cover existing local food purchasing. This ensures that the state dollars will generate new economic activity.

    There are no mandates, and the reimbursement is optional. So, yes, an Oregon carrot can get included in the mixed vegetables. However, the more Oregon foods are purchased, then the mroe school districts would be reimbursed. So instead of simply adding an Oregon carrot to mixed vegetables, it would be more advantageous to create mixed vegetables out of ALL Oregon vegetables.

    And you are correct about the packaging & processing. More direct lanugage:

    HB 2800 allows state dollars to be used for any foods that are produced, packaged, packed or processed in Oregon. This means schools could be reimbursed for foods that have only a small portion of their production chain located in Oregon. For example, apples that are grown in New Zealand but sorted into bags in Oregon would be included. Economic analysis indicates production and processing of Oregon products require more labor than packing and packaging items from other locations.

    If you think "Well, why should my state tax dollars go towards packaging apples from New Zealand" keep in mind those are Oregonians who are packaging those jobs and processing other food IT is probably in the best interest of the state's economy to keep these industries thriving, ideally from packaging and processing Oregon-grown food, but imported food as well.

    While you suggest that more affluent suburban schools would benefit more from this bill, consider that 50% of Multnomah County school districts currently purchase Oregon products, and 57% of school districts in Washington County. Meanwhile, 100% of school districts in Crook, Deschutes, and Sherman counties purchase Oregon products. I'm not sure how affluent or suburban these counties might be. If you suggest that inner city schools (do you mean North Portland?) desperately need the farm-to-school "magic wand" I would agree with you, as would plenty of other F2S advocates.

    Thanks for your comment!

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      Sorry, Kyle, not buying it. First off, as the pdf states, it's 15c a meal, so a single Oregon carrot (or, a single product with a new label on it) counts. A single cracker with a new label on it would still count. That seems wrong to me.

      As for an 'Oregon Business' that does the relabeling, how many people do you think that takes? I've been in plenty of manufacturers who can do relabeling via machine. Or perhaps a single guy with a label gun. That is hardly in the spirit of the law, but very much in the spirit of corporate America.

      I'm curious where you get your numbers from. When I was in school in Oregon, the supplies came from Armark (Philadelphia).

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        Jason, I'm sorry but your comments remind me of the doom-and-gloom I heard daily about Obama's health care plan when I was a congressional intern. About how if it were to pass, the government would undercut and regulate health care to the point where private insurance companies would all go bankrupt when in truth the health care plan was a boon for the private sector health companies.

        I provided a link in an earlier response to the full assessment. The methodology used in the assessment was looking at existing purchasing habits by school districts from local farms and producers and then extrapolated from those figures. So while it might be all right for you to hypothesize about the "single carrot" I might suggest looking at the actual local products purchased by school districts and used in their meals.

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    Also, as for it being a "fantastic idea" that needs "serious consideration before it becomes law," this is the point Suzanne Briggs of running some research or pilot projects to see how to best turn this fantastic idea into reality and not just as an idea. Keep in mind the current version of the bill is asking for 90% less than the $20 million amount requested in the original version, which is the perfect amount to fund pilot projects in a handful of school districts throughout the state to best see how a successful farm-to-school program would work without overburdening either the school district or the state Department of Education.

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