Farm to School

Pecking at the barriers for “chicken of the middle” producers

Saturday, April 18th, 2015 by

Stacey Sobell, Ecotrust’s Food & Farms Director speaking at the Ecotrust Food Forum

On April 8, farmers, butchers, public health professionals, industry experts, and members of the media gathered at Ecotrust to talk about sustainable chicken production, and why it’s so difficult to achieve.

Stacey Sobell, Ecotrust’s Food & Farms Director, kicked off the second of three Food Forums hosted this spring by Ecotrust with a sobering statistic: Each year, more than 23,000 Americans die as a direct result of routine infections — infections that we should be able to cure, but for which the antibiotics we rely on no longer work.

Currently, there is a bill before the Oregon legislature that would limit the use of antibiotics in livestock production only to animals that are sick. House Bill 2598 is a response to the fact that antibiotics are routinely used in animal production not just to treat sick animals, but also to promote growth and to prevent disease due to unsanitary conditions and crowding. This practice has led to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria known as “superbugs” and fears about the future of antibiotic resistance.

Despite the fact that demand for chicken has skyrocketed since the 1980s, access to and purchasing of locally raised poultry for Oregon schools remains paltry. Sobell referenced the recent USDA farm to school census, which found that “Oregon school districts invested nearly 10 million of their food dollars in local communities, and that beef was one of the top five locally produced foods purchased. But chicken was not on that list, despite being the number one protein served by schools across the country.”

Sobell went on to discuss the results of part of a yearlong study done by Ecotrust into the regional food system infrastructure. According to the study, there are no midsize chicken producers in Oregon. Instead, individual consumers are left with only two choices: more expensive, sustainably and humanely raised chicken from small-scale producers or cheaper, large-scale, factory-farmed chicken.

What followed Sobell’s introduction was a robust discussion about what many attendees and panelists referred to as “chicken of the middle.”

antibiotic resistance expert Gail Hansen smiles into the camera

Antibiotics in chicken production

Gail R. Hansen is a public health veterinarian with Pew Charitable Trusts based in Washington, D.C. She’s been at Pew since 2010 working on antibiotic resistance issues. Hansen supports the responsible use of antibiotics in chicken production and was hesitant about the phrase “antibiotic-free,” saying, “Sometimes bad things happen to good chickens.”

She estimated that animals in a healthy system only require antibiotics between two to five percent of the time. “If you need antibiotics to make animals grow, you know you’ve got a broken system,” she said. Hansen spoke later about the major difference that simply cleaning a facility can have on the health of chickens. Referencing the study Meat on Drugs published by Consumer Reports in 2012, she noted farms that don’t use antibiotics for growth promotion can do even better than those that do.

Portland Public Schools Nutrition Services Director speaks to attendees at an event

Chicken in school lunchrooms

Portland Public Schools has been one of Ecotrust’s closest partners in getting local foods into the cafeteria and onto the plates of kids. Gitta Grether-Sweeney has been leading the PPS child nutrition programs for 28 years and has been the Director of Nutrition Services at Portland Public Schools since 2010. When introducing herself, she said, “I run the largest restaurant in town.” Under her guidance, Portland Public Schools increased its local procurement by six percent in 2014. “But,” she says, “protein is the hardest nut to crack.”

Chicken is the number one meat served in schools because, it’s cost effective, kids like it, and there are fewer cultural barriers around chicken as compared to beef or pork. But in order to maintain that cost efficacy, chicken must fit into the tiny per-meal budget allocated for public schools.

According to Grether-Sweeney, Portland Public Schools Nutrition Services is allocated $3.04 to serve a student one meal. After overhead costs are accounted for, just $1.38 is left for food. Operating within these constraints is difficult, but Grether-Sweeney has already formed a partnership that works.

Portland Public Schools buys drumsticks from a chicken producer in Nebraska. Drumsticks are less valuable than chicken breasts, and therefore within Portland Public Schools’ budget. The question remains, though, why aren’t partnerships like this forming locally? Why must Grether-Sweeney go out of region to buy chicken? According to Aaron Silverman, the answer lies in processing.

Aaron Silverman sits on a panel in a black and white long-sleeved t-shirt with a brick wall behind him

The missing piece

Aaron Silverman, owner of Tails & Trotters, which specializes in prosciutto cured from heritage pigs finished on hazelnuts, was originally a “chicken guy”. Before going into pork in 2009, Silverman was fifteen years into a career in midsize pastured poultry production. “I am the chicken of the middle,” he said.

In Noti, OR in 1993, Silverman started raising chicken on land he had purchased in order to revive the soil. His operation processed about 100 chickens every other week; customers would come to the farm to pick up their orders the day of processing.

By 2000, demand for his chicken had grown significantly, and he teamed up with three other families to found Greener Pastures. Greener Pastures successfully petitioned the Department of Agriculture to recognize the 20,000 bird exemption, which exempts producers that process 20,000 birds or less annually from federal inspection. Eventually, as demand continued to grow, the 20,000 bird ceiling was reached, and Greener Pastures was unable to raise the capital to build a central processing facility that would keep them in line with state regulations.

Silverman reasoned that producing 20,000 birds per year breaks down to processing and selling around 200 birds per week. (For comparison, Foster Farms processes around 150,000 birds per day.) Ultimately, this is not enough revenue to sustain that scale of production. A large, central processing facility would allow both smaller and midsize producers the facilities to more efficiently and cost effectively process their meat: “Until this happens, we will be left with fewer choices — large or teeny tiny.”

Connecting with consumers

William Betts, Vice President of Purchasing at Whole Foods Markets, oversees all purchasing for the Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia stores. Whole Foods is one of the only grocers to offer only 100 percent antibiotic-free meat. Betts emphasized that Whole Foods, like consumers, is ready for a midsize sustainable chicken operation: “Whole Foods would love to have a partner. We can tell stories. We can get you certified. We would love to have partners to get us there.”

The chicken supply chain

At one point in the evening, Grether-Sweeney responded to a question, saying, “Demand will drive change.” Ecotrust’s Food & Farms team has begun the process of forming exciting partnerships in attempt to fill in the gaps in the infrastructure of the regional food system. In addition to fostering conversation by hosting events like Food Forums, Ecotrust has been working with OHSU and Portland Public schools to assess how much demand there is for chicken raised without antibiotics among larger institutions.

Further investigating infrastructural gaps in the regional food system is the topic of the third and final Food Forum: Opening the Black Box of the Food System. Join us on May 14 to learn more about gaps in the aggregation, processing, and distribution of food.

10,000 Foot View of a Region

Saturday, March 21st, 2015 by


Thinking about farm to school programs: What’s next for the West?

The Western Region is full of pioneers, including in the world of farm to school. It’s led to some magnificent innovation: California birthed the National Farm to School Network; the Oregon legislature created a $1.2 million farm to school and school garden grant program; and from Alaska to Montana, Hawaii to Nevada, our region’s schools spend over $87 million on local food each year.

As the Western Regional Lead Agency for the National Farm to School Network, we at Ecotrust are lucky to work closely with many of the explorers who have charted this new course for farmers and schools in our region.

This year, Ecotrust’s farm to school team is wrapping up a three-year project working directly with school districts and farmers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley to increase purchases of local foods. The project, funded by Kaiser Permanente, was an opportunity to support creative new ideas to move the dial on farm to school, such as Boat to School and Legislators to the Lunchroom. It was also a unique opportunity for our team to build deeper relationships with school food service directors, farmers, and distributors. At the end of our three years, we asked them: Having come this far, what do you need next?


This question also reflects a time of introspection for our team. Almost a decade into our work in farm to school, Ecotrust is looking forward to what’s on the horizon for our region. What will it take to make farm to school the new business as usual at every school, from Anchorage to Boise to Honolulu? We have a lot of resources in place — state leads who act as networking and resource hubs for each of the eight Western states (we even have a few state farm to preschool leads); state farm to school grant programs in Alaska and Oregon; vibrant statewide networks in Hawaii and California; and a rich partnership with our regional counterpart at the USDA, who makes much of this work possible through technical assistance and financial resources.

And yet, when we asked school districts and farmers in the Willamette Valley what they needed next, the answers were familiar. Small budgets, season limitations, a lack of scratch cooking in school kitchens, and the time-consuming nature of building the relationships vital to the work topped the list of challenges for schools and farmers alike.

There are workarounds for each of these obstacles, and they certainly haven’t stopped many school districts and farmers from creating vibrant programs and partnerships. But these ongoing challenges are symptomatic of a more fundamental bottleneck that remains even as we continue to innovate: Our region’s hard infrastructure — the kind that supports the aggregation, processing, and distribution of food — isn’t set up for local suppliers to feed local buyers.

Pineapple in school lunches in Hawaii might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s not that simple. Dexter Kishida, School Food Service Supervisor at the Hawaii State Department of Education explains that most Hawaiian school kitchens don’t have capacity to deal with the whole fruit and that the state lacks local processing capacity at a scale to meet school district needs. The fruit must be shipped off island to be processed into slices and chunks and then sent back (with a resulting impact on cost and affordability for schools). And Dexter notes that this often means that pineapple from South America and the Philippines is more affordable than fruit grown in their own state.

Mardi Solomon of Whatcom County Farm to School relates how students in Washington State are served “baby” shaved carrots from California rather than those grown locally, since school food service programs cannot afford to pay staff for the time it takes to cut whole carrots into sticks. These are just two examples of how the system through which schools, hospitals, and college campuses buy their food in the West isn’t yet conducive to our vision of a resilient, regionally based food system.


We’ve still made significant progress over the past ten years and there are exciting and innovative solutions on the horizon. In Hawaii, Dexter tells the story of a small grower who is setting up a flash freezing facility with the potential to serve the school district’s needs. The facility will process the second and third harvests of pineapples to help provide a product that is more affordable for schools.

In Whatcom County, a new local vegetable processing facility at Cloud Mountain Farm Center is one effort to try to fill the infrastructure gap in Washington by processing local carrots and other veggies into the forms that schools need.


Farmers check out processing equipment while visiting Cloud Mountain Farm Center last fall on a mobile tour hosted by the Washington Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School program

It’s clear that school districts and farmers value each other and want to work together, and many of them know how to overcome common challenges to make these relationships work. Now it’s time to rebuild the infrastructure that underlies this work — to shift the entire system so that farm to school and local food procurement is feasible for more than those who are deeply committed.

Focusing our collective attention on improving the methods through which buyers access local food — the aggregation, processing, and distribution that make this procurement possible — is the challenge of the next decade, and has the potential to transform farm to school into the new business as usual. It’s a monumental task, but we’re pioneers, and we’re heading for that horizon.


Helping schools source local chicken

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015 by

preschool-lunch-1600x580Demand for locally produced and responsibly raised chicken has grown steadily among Oregon’s institutions — including schools, hospitals, government facilities, and corporate cafes, all serving hundreds of thousands of people each day. But supply is lacking. Although chicken is the “center of the plate” protein served most often by this major market sector, institutions have been unable to find local suppliers able to meet their sourcing criteria.

To address this gap, Ecotrust has received a USDA planning grant that will lay the groundwork for a targeted, long-term effort to build Oregon’s supply chain of locally-produced chicken raised without antibiotics for our local institutions. Key partners on the project include Portland Public Schools, Beaverton School District, and Oregon Health and Sciences University.

This planning project will: 1) analyze Oregon’s existing supply of regionally produced chicken raised without antibiotics; 2) assess demand for this chicken from local institutions, including schools and hospitals; and 3) develop a plan to address gaps in the supply chain for this type of chicken. With this plan in hand, our long-term objective is to boost consumption of and access to local, raised without antibiotic chicken, increasing market opportunities for Oregon’s regional chicken producers and processors.

Read more about local schools’ quest to serve chicken raised without antibiotics, at

Empowering school food directors to buy local

Thursday, June 20th, 2013 by

Stacey Sobell, Ecotrust Farm to School Manager

This is a repost from the Ecotrust blog, which is designed to inspire fresh thinking, spark innovation, and encourage investment in natural economies. Read more stories about Ecotrust’s work, and that of our partners and friends, at

Four years ago, under the fluorescent lights of the Salem Conference Center, I stood at a table heaped with Oregon apples free for the taking, trying to catch the eyes of some 300 school district food service staff. I found myself engulfed by the scents of hot pizza and french fries and the sound of clanging metal warming trays. The attendees of this annual trade show have the daunting task of collectively serving meals to over 300,000 Oregon schoolchildren, many of whom rely on school meals as their primary form of sustenance.

My goal was to encourage these food buyers to begin building relationships with local farmers, food processors, and distributors and to use Farm to School programming to revolutionize their menus in support of our local agricultural economy.

But much as it can be hard to coax a kid to choose a carrot when a chicken nugget is within reach, it was equally difficult to lure these food buyers from the hot food samples that other vendors had to offer. And so, as my crisp apples remained untouched, I became determined to make it easier for local food suppliers to have a strong presence at this trade show, and for school food buyers to make new relationships closer to home. So many decisions are made within those halls. How could we make it possible for local food to be a viable option, when up against powerful national food companies?

For the last three years, we’ve transformed the entrance to this conference into a hall of Oregon ranchers and fishermen, farmers and food processors, and suppliers of local grains, fruits, vegetables, meat, and more. We call it the Farm to School Showcase, and within this hall, Oregon’s farmers and food suppliers meet and connect with school food buyers face-to-face. We entice conference attendees with a Farm to School trivia game, support vendors with scholarships to attend, and make it easier for those 300,000 daily meals to include a little bit more local food.

Stephanie Powers (left) from Camas Country Mill near Eugene shares a sample and information about their Oregon-grown grains with a school food buyer at the 2013 Oregon School Nutrition Association food trade show.

As a result of connections made over the past several years, the Bend-LaPine School District is now purchasing Oregon-grown wheat from Camas Country Mill near Eugene; Salem-based Truitt Brothers is supplying locally-grown beans to cafeterias across the state; and school food service staff have an abundance of new sources for fresh and frozen local produce.

I’m excited to introduce the Farm to School Showcase Toolkit, published by Ecotrust, in which we’ve compiled our resources and lessons learned, typed up our checklists, and included lots of photos from the past three years. This toolkit makes it easier for Farm to School and sustainable food advocates in every state to put on Showcases of their own, paving the way for more local producers to make headway in the school food market.

In Oregon, that means approximately 300,000 meals per day, but nationally it’s over 31 million. That’s an $8.5 billion annual market. The potential impact of putting more of those dollars into the pockets of local food producers is astounding.

Together, school districts across the country have the power to radically shift institutional purchasing away from business as usual and towards the vision of a new economy represented by those Oregon apples – one that offers fresh, healthy food to all residents, economically viable food value chains that fairly compensate and respect the dignity of all participants, and methods of food production that renew our resources. Our schools are the place to start.

New Farm to School grants put local foods in Oregon students’ lunches

Monday, February 11th, 2013 by

This is a repost from the Ecotrust blog, which is designed to inspire fresh thinking, spark innovation, and encourage investment in natural economies. Read more stories about Ecotrust’s work, and that of our partners and friends, at

This semester, school lunch for nearly 60,000 Oregon students is transforming thanks to an infusion of local food and food education.

The Oregon Department of Education has announced that eleven school districts are the recipients of competitive Farm to School and School Garden grants totaling $189,140. The majority of the funds (87.5%) will be spent on purchasing Oregon food products, with a smaller portion (12.5%) dedicated to food-, agriculture-, and garden-based education activities.

Local food is on the lunchline and garden programs are on the rise in Oregon, thanks to new Farm to School funding from the state. Photo by Shawn Linehan.

The funding goes to diverse districts and schools across the state, from the tiny rural community of Joseph nestled in the Wallowa Mountains, to Oregon’s second largest city, Eugene, in the heart of the Willamette Valley.

Local food is on the lunchline and garden programs are on the rise in Oregon, thanks to new Farm to School funding from the state. Photo by Shawn Linehan.


Latino Community Farmers in Oregon Feasting on New Market: School lunch

Saturday, August 18th, 2012 by

This is a repost from the Ecotrust blog, which is designed to inspire fresh thinking, spark innovation, and encourage investment in natural economies. Read more stories about Ecotrust’s work, and that of our partners and friends, at

La Esperanza farmer Araceli Roman and her daughters at the Forest Grove Farmers Market. Photo by Shawn Linehan.

In 2010, the nonprofit Adelante Mujeres saw a clear challenge when the Latino farmers on its 12-acre La Esperanza Farm in the city of Forest Grove, Ore. continued to struggle selling their abundant harvests. Adelante Mujeres provides courses in sustainable agriculture to low-income Latinos, and offers graduates small farm plots and a booth at the Forest Grove Farmers Market to sell their fresh produce. But daunting social, linguistic, and technological barriers were making it difficult for the La Esperanza farmers to find diverse buyers for their organic vegetables.

Over two years, Portland State University and Ecotrust worked in close partnership with Adelante Mujeres to pilot a program that connects La Esperanza farmers to local wholesale buyers seeking fresh, organic produce. In the process, they took a hard look at how these farmers could support greater community health among the low-income residents of Washington County. (more…)

Schools: Make local food sourcing a snap with FoodHub!

Monday, February 27th, 2012 by

FoodHub hosts National Farm to School webinarHave you been trying to get a local sourcing program off the ground for your school, but don’t quite know where to start? FoodHub is the tool that helps schools kick-start relationships with local producers, bringing healthy, delicious foods to kitchens and cafeterias. Now is your chance to learn more about how FoodHub can help your Farm to School program thrive.

Join us as we host a Lunch Bites webinar through the National Farm to School Network, March 13, 12:00 PM – 12:20 PM CDT. (more…)

ODA offers cost share program and “mock audit” for Good Agricultural Practices certification May 26, 2011

Friday, May 13th, 2011 by

Message from Michelle Ratcliffe, Oregon Department of Agriculture

Oregon farmers currently selling to schools and other institutions, or those interested in doing so, are invited to learn more about Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification by attending an onsite mock audit, farm tour, and discussion presented by the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Institutional buyers interested in learning more about GAP certification requirements are also invited to attend.


Food Producers: Be a Part of a New Local Foods Feature at the Oregon School Nutrition Association’s Annual Tradeshow

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011 by

The Oregon School Nutrition Association is pleased to announce a new local foods feature to their annual trade show March 11 and 12, 2011. All Oregon, Washington and Idaho producers are invited to participate and be showcased, but we will have limited space to only feature 12 in the main gallery.

The recent passage of federal legislation and increased attention on local foods in schools has created more opportunities than ever for regional food producers. If you are looking to engage in, or deepen, your connections to the growing school food market, this is the one event not to miss! The event will be held at the Salem Conference Center, and 250 school food buyers will attend.  If you are ready to register, please download and complete the vendor application posted here.

Deadline to submit applications is February 28. All vendor booths are filled on a first come first serve basis, so if you’d like to be part of the Local Foods welcoming gallery, please submit your form as soon as possible to guarantee a spot. When you do, select booth options between 89-100 and make a special note that you’d like to be a part of the Local Foods main gallery.

If you have already registered for a booth and would like to make sure that you are part of the Local Foods gallery or have other questions, please feel free to call or email Michelle Markesteyn Ratcliffe, Oregon Department of Agriculture, Farm to School, 503.872.6620 or

Friday, March 11

1:00-5:30 pm – Exhibitor Move In Time

7:00-9:30 pm – Friday Fun Night with a live band

9:30 pm on – Free to have hosted broker/vendor rooms


Saturday, March 12

10:00-11:00 am – designated for Directors and Purchasing agents only

11:00 am-2:00 pm – All members will be welcome

5:00 pm – Closing ceremony

BOOTH RENTAL:                               Booths will be $650.00 each.

A booth consists of the following:

  • Admittance to “Vendor Friday Fun Night”
  • One ticket to the Saturday Night closing Ceremony, additional tickets are $35.00 each
  • 1 – 8’ x 10’ Draped Booth
  • Waste Basket with Liner
  • 110 Volt outlet/500 Watt outlet per booth
  • A sign for your booth

FoodHub: A Tool for Farm to School

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010 by

“Quite frankly, I had no idea of the farms that were in our area.” – Lisa Vincent, Nutrition Services Operations Supervisor, Beaverton School District

Have you ever wondered how many farms are located close to your school district and how to get in touch with them? Check out FoodHub’s video featuring Susan Barker and Lisa Vincent of Beaverton, Oregon School District Nutrition Services. They explain how FoodHub helps make it easier to execute their Farm-to-School program by finding local farms and local products. Springbank Farms’ Brian and Michelle O’Driscoll talk about the pride they take in selling to schools.