Rogue Valley Farm to School is growing a culture of health in Southern Oregon
Rogue Valley Farm to School (RVF2S), a community-based nonprofit organization located in Ashland, Oregon, is boldly working to change local food systems and redefine what healthy learning environments and flourishing communities look like. They partner with schools and farmers across Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley region to incorporate nutritious foods into school meals and bring hands-on garden education to students.
The lush Rogue Valley, which spans Jackson and Josephine Counties, is home to rich farmland and vibrant agricultural communities. But in the Rogue Valley, along with other rural areas across Oregon, many families are struggling to put food on the table. For instance, one in five children living in Jackson County are food insecure, defined as having unreliable or uncertain access to adequate food. In Jackson County’s largest city, Medford, 95% of K-12 students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.
Hunger can impact all aspects of a child’s experience in school, from ability to focus in the classroom to test performance. And for children living in a food insecure household, school meals are often the most reliable source of daily calories. Therefore, schools are critical environments for promoting childhood nutrition and advancing health and educational equity. As Sheila Foster, Executive Director of RVF2S says, “If we’re aiming for equity, one of the places we have to start is to make sure that every child that is sitting in a classroom has started their day with a good, healthy meal, and that they’re going to get a good, healthy lunch.”
RVF2S wasn’t always working within schools. When they formed in 2006, their primary organizational activity was field trips that brought students to local farms for a day of agricultural experience and learning. However, in 2017 their organizational vision shifted. As Sheila Foster says, “We started to feel like we wanted to have a greater impact than having kids come out to the farm for just one day. This was clearly fantastic for the kids, but it was pretty hard to say ‘yes we’ve changed how these kids eat by this field trip’. Clearly we can inspire them, but whether or not we can have a larger impact was a question.”
RVF2S’s shift towards long-term nutritional impact spurred the formation of the Digging Deeper School Partnership Program — which is rooted in growing a school-wide culture of health. This program works by bringing a suite of targeted nutrition and education interventions into schools. A component of this multifaceted program involves revolutionizing school cafeterias. RVF2S’s professional chef and registered dieticians work directly with school nutrition staff to incorporate seasonal produce into breakfast and lunch menus. They also hold a monthly tasting table that provides students the opportunity to try, and learn about, foods that come direct from local farms to their cafeteria plate.
Building strong relationships between schools and local growers is an important part of this cafeteria revolution. RVF2S assists farmers in developing the infrastructure needed to sell their produce directly to schools. They also support schools in acquiring the funding to buy local. In Oregon, the statewide Farm to Child Nutrition Grant Program offers over ten million dollars each year to directly support farm to school food purchasing. Helping schools acquire these grants has allowed nutrition staff to increase the variety and amount of nutritious foods they are able to incorporate into school meals, while simultaneously benefiting Rogue Valley farmers.
Digging Deeper staff also lead weekly garden classes, continue to bring students to partner farms for field trips and offer continuing nutrition education for school teachers and administrators. These quarterly continuing education meetings help bring the garden back to the classroom by embedding nutritional wellness and discussions of agriculture and food systems into teaching curriculums.
Though schools are a microcosm of a larger food system, changing how food is acquired, prepared, experienced and learned about in schools can have a substantial impact on students, their families and the wider community. Rebecca Slosberg, Co-Executive Director of RVF2S explains, students in their partner schools are “learning and acquiring skills to grow their own gardens, finding a love of plants and food, getting exposure on farms and having positive experiences, and they’re getting to go to their cafeteria and eat food that is locally and healthfully sourced.”
RVF2S is truly ‘digging deeper’ into how school environments can help set the course for a healthy life as kids learn and grow. By fostering a culture of health in schools and working to create a sustainable local food system, RVF2S is supporting kids in developing, as RVF2S Registered Dietician Abigail Blinn says, “a healthy relationship with food that continues throughout life.”
Learn about farm to school benefits
Learn more about the impact that integrating local farm fresh foods into school meals can have on children’s health, learning, the local economy and the environment. Check out this data from Farm To School Counts that captures the various benefits of farm to school programs across Oregon!
Support farm to school programs
Offer your support to local community-based organizations, like Rogue Valley Farm to School, that are doing incredible work to support a healthier world for kids. If you live in the area, consider volunteering with Rogue Valley Farm to School to help support their various programs. Don’t live nearby? Visit their Support Us page for more ideas on how you can support their work and mission!
Advocate for farm to school programs
Help change local food systems by advocating for schools in your community to integrate locally sourced foods into school meals! Farm to school programs can help advance nutritional and educational equity for kids. If you live in Oregon, you can start by directing your community schools to procurement and funding resources provided by the Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Network and The Oregon Department of Education.