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Test Kitchen

ASHLAND — Local, organic potatoes, carrots and onions are on the lunch menu at Ashland Middle School.

Most students, however, zip past the sign promoting the district's farm-to-school pilot project and then past the lemon chicken over rice that features the root vegetables. Pizza, tacos, burritos and submarine sandwiches are the standard bill of fare.

"It's a little bit of an issue getting kids to eat the food," says Tracy Harding, coordinator of Ashland's farm-to-school program.

The Lepley sisters, Jessica and Alison, were among just a handful of middle-school students who chose the chicken-and-vegetable dish.

"It looked really good," sixth-grader Jessica says. "I thought it would be great to try something new."

This month, students will have the opportunity to try even more exotic vegetables — beets, parsnips and rutabagas — harvested from Whistling Duck and Wolf Gulch farms in Applegate and furnished to the school district's food-service provider. An anonymous donation of $1,500 purchased nearly 2,000 pounds of produce for the project's three-month test run, Harding says. Grant funding is needed to keep locally grown vegetables on school menus after the winter break, she adds.

Parents like Scott McGuire say Ashland would overwhelmingly support a permanent farm-to-school program if it was funded. At the state level, the Oregon Department of Education hired a farm-to-school coordinator to help schools start their own farms and buy local, fresh produce. Several Ashland schools, including the middle school, have gardens, which primarily grow food that kids can eat for snacks.

McGuire, an organic gardener and educator, established the garden at the district's John Muir School last spring. While school gardens do provide educational lessons in several subjects, farming needs to play a larger role in curriculum so students will consistently choose healthier foods, McGuire says.

"I'm hoping the farms-to-schools program really goes in that direction," he says. "There's a re-skilling issue. I think we really need to teach kids how to grow our own food again."

Harding agrees, citing the dramatic changes in kids' eating habits when they spent several weeks working and cooking at Medford's Dunbar Farms while attending Kids Unlimited summer programs. Some Ashland teachers already are enthusiastic about the idea of an expanded farming curriculum, she adds.

About 53 Oregon schools in six school districts have farm-to-school programs, according to National Farm to School. None of the districts are in Southern Oregon.

Harding says she hopes Ashland's pilot project ultimately will support legislation to increase the subsidy for school meals, which is needed because it costs more to produce healthy food.

Cost has been the main obstacle for farm-to-school programs, says Jeff Ashmun, senior general manager for Sodexho USA, which provides food services for Ashland, Medford and Phoenix-Talent school districts. Sodexho's main supplier is Houston-based SYSCO Corp., but it agreed to use produce procured locally in Ashland's pilot project.

"I think we can feed our kids better locally," McGuire says, referring to Sodexho's contract.

"This district can feed our kids better," he says. "We have to really strategize about what to do."

Borrowing an idea from a partnership between New Seasons Market and a Portland-area school district, Ashland Food Co-op this month is duplicating dishes — like butternut squash soup and carrot cake — served at the city's schools and selling them at its deli and prepared foods counter, says the Co-op's culinary educator Mary Shaw.

"Part of our own mission is to support the local growers, which, in turn, helps support the local economy," Shaw says. "We wanted to help spread the word, so to speak, that this is happening."

Seventh-grader Gavin Theiring says he didn't realize he was eating locally grown vegetables in the chicken dish at school but that he might have been quicker to choose it if he'd known, adding that his parents purchase local produce.

"That's cool," Gavin says. "I would support local farmers."

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.

Twin sisters, Alison and Jessica Lepley, both sixth-graders, enjoy chicken prepared at Ashland Middle School with locally grown vegetables. - Bob Pennell