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.