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Feeding our future

Food fosters learning, so school meal sites are a key to education
Students help themselves to the salad bar at Jewett Elementary School in Central Point. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]

Chicken coalesces in Anne Leavens’ kitchen as “strips,” “nuggets” or “popcorn” — depending on what the national supply chain can muster. Adapting daily to the availability of food, Leavens still must serve about 3,000 demanding customers.

“Just because they’re kids doesn’t mean they’re not our customers,” says Leavens.

As nutrition services supervisor for Central Point School District 6, Leavens managed to reconfigure cafeteria fare as takeout throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

But even as students returned in the fall for standard school days, Leavens still hasn’t seen a return to normalcy where food is concerned.

“Normally, we like to have the same (items) all year,” she says, explaining that one week’s pizza may be round, the next week’s square because the district can’t rely on orders being filled as requested, particularly where the U.S. Department of Agriculture plays a role. Operating on a $3.5 million annual budget, says Leavens, the district relies heavily on USDA commodities, despite their vagaries.

“So far, the kids have handled that really well.”

And District 6’s food service staff has handled unprecedented challenges with creative solutions. In response to 2019’s distance learning, they delivered an entire week’s worth of takeout breakfasts and lunches to district drop sites. By comparison, furnishing a single day’s allotment of food — taken to go — when on-campus learning resumed in 2020 was a cinch.

“They were adaptable; they didn’t fight change; they were happy to be at work,” says Leavens of her staff, which number 30 to 35.

Now that District 6 food-service workers are back to interacting with students at its eight schools, Leavens is looking ahead to the federal government’s latest school meal requirements, including the proposed increase to 80% wholegrain products over the 50% allowed by the Trump administration. She says she’s also hopeful Congress will extend waivers allowing public schools to serve every student free of charge.

“Taking the stigma away is something any food service program would want.”

Every student — regardless of household income — is entitled to free breakfast, lunch and dinner each day at Kids Unlimited Academy, which also provides daily meal service during skills, reinforced inclusivity and provided outdoor learning spaces.

Cooking every dish from scratch in the charter school’s full, on-site kitchen, Kids Unlimited staff learned years ago that feeding students freshly prepared, top-quality food was among its chief responsibilities, says Tom Cole, executive director of the organization with program sites in Medford and White City.

The pandemic, says Cole, only magnified the nutritional need of kids — and their entire families.

“Food … it became one of the most important services for us,” he says.

Fresh, nutritious foods, according to “tons of studies,” are among the most significant contributors to children’s success, says Sheila Foster, executive director of Rogue Valley Farm to School. But connection to food in school settings, she says, goes beyond meeting kids’ calorie requirements.

Foster’s organization founded a school garden over the past year at Central Point Elementary on the advice of La Clinica mental health specialists contracting with the district to address students’ psychological effects from the pandemic.

Gardening, says Foster, was independently legitimized over the past year by a separate assessment of Farm to School’s programming, which instilled social skills, reinforced inclusivity and provided outdoor learning spaces.

“The garden is ideal for that,” says Foster. “The programs had a huge impact. We’ve realized that, pandemics aside, that’s a really big role we can play in the school.”

The coronavirus-related crunch on school bus systems even mobilized Farm to School.

When a Medford first-grade teacher couldn’t secure bus transportation for her students to a local pumpkin patch last fall, says Foster, Farm to School brought Applegate-grown gourds to her classroom.

Such activities lay the foundations for a future with Farm to School support on every local campus, says Foster, citing eight schools as current program sites. The organization is expanding its reach next year through Family Nurturing Center’s work at Historic Hanley Farm near Central Point.

More than 20 local farms already work with Farm to School to put their products on plates in local school cafeterias.

As Southern Oregon’s procurement hub, under the leadership of Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Network, Foster and her staff help to broker sales between area farmers and schools.

About half of all school districts locally operate their own food services, while the others contract with Sodexo or Chartwells.

Kids have their say during Farm to School’s “harvest of the month,” which brings samples of local, seasonally fresh fruits and vegetables into cafeterias. Encouraged not only to try new foods, students vote for items to feature on lunch menus for the rest of the month.

“It’s super exciting to see them try new things,” says Leavens. “We love feeding people, and it’s really fun to feed kids. We like serving our future.”

Click here to read the 2022 edition of Our Valley.