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It's back to school for Oregon FoodCorps members

Next week, kids in Oregon head back to school along with the second class of FoodCorps service members that increases its numbers from four to five. In addition, a new fellowship position is being filled to serve as a program coordinator. This corps of leaders will dedicate a year of full-time public service in school food systems. Tasks include expanding hands-on nutrition education programs, building and tending school gardens, and sourcing healthy, local food for school cafeterias.

This year, Oregon gains Union County as a service site in addition to last year’s counties– Multnomah, Tillamook, Marion, and Benton. The Oregon Department of Agriculture manages the state’s FoodCorps program and will host the FoodCorps fellow. Last year’s service members served more than 8,000 students, generated over 300 volunteers, and helped grow almost 2,000 pounds of donated food.

“We are excited to be the only state agency participating and hosting a fellow in this program, which helps communities connect children to healthy food,” says ODA Director Katy Coba. “The first FoodCorps class not only generated a lot of momentum in our state, it produced some very tangible results that link kids to good, nutritious, locally-grown food.”

Working at ODA as part of the program is Portland native, Emily Ritchie. The new FoodCorps Fellows Program brings a returning corps member to serve as a team leader, supporting and guiding the service members in their state, and embarking on special projects of their own design.

“When asked to be the fellow at ODA, I jumped at the opportunity to be involved in broader change for our food producers and kids,” says Ritchie. “After serving in Tillamook County last year, I look forward to focusing on a special project to bring Oregon seafood to schools across the state.”

The five members will serve with the following organizations:

•    Chelsey Thomsen will serve with the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation in Marion County
•    Amoreena Treff will serve with the Corvallis Environmental Center in Benton County
•    Allyson Gardner will serve with Food Roots in Tillamook County
•    Jessica Polledri will serve with Growing Gardens in Multnomah County
•    Anina Estrem will serve with North Powder Charter School in Union County.

Each of Oregon’s five FoodCorps members will work on a common initiative– the Oregon Harvest for Schools promotion. Created by the Oregon Department of Education, the campaign features a monthly in-school promotion of featured produce items. Local school districts are encouraged to feature an Oregon fruit or vegetable every month in their school meal programs.

FoodCorps is one of the many tools being used to further the cause of farm to school efforts.

“We look at FoodCorps as another avenue to procure and promote Oregon agricultural products in schools,” says Michelle Markesteyn Ratcliffe, ODA’s Farm to School Program Manager. “At the same time, it supports agricultural and environmental literacy at a time when most kids are several generations removed from the farm.”

What started a few years ago as a few schools dealing individually with a couple of farmers has grown significantly. Since 2007, Oregon has gone from a handful of schools being involved in farm to school efforts to 90 of 189 districts serving Oregon agricultural products. Those 90 school districts represent nearly 70 percent of all Oregon students who are being served local foods. There are also about 200 school gardens across the state.

“FoodCorps members focus specifically on farm to school and school garden related activities,” says Ratcliffe. “They build and tend school gardens, teach kids about nutrition and agriculture, and help schools source more local agricultural products. We continue to be thrilled with the opportunities associated with the FoodCorps Program. It’s working well here in Oregon.”

Another important aspect of the program is its ability to corral volunteers from the community.

“FoodCorps members will help these organizations increase their ability to meet local needs,” says Ratcliffe. “A FoodCorp member will likely engage between 20 and 200 community volunteers in the school garden, and agricultural and food education.”

FoodCorps seeks to serve vulnerable children, improve their access to healthy and affordable food, and train young leaders for careers in food and agriculture. Patterned after the public service model of AmeriCorps, FoodCorps leverages federal funds to help its service members accomplish program goals. ODA is the only state agency to manage a state’s FoodCorps program. Most other sites include academic institutions and non-profit organizations.

The five FoodCorps members in Oregon, as well as those in other sites around the nation, are committing to at least 1,700 hours of service over the next year. In exchange, the members receive a $15,000 stipend, health insurance, career mentoring, and a $5,500 education award upon completion of their service. The contributions they make to their respective communities should be well worth the investment as kids eat better, and know more about food and agriculture while local growers gain greater access to school lunch and breakfast programs.

FoodCorps will be in two new states this year– Montana and Connecticut– bringing the total to 12 states where the organization has a presence. Next week, 80 service members will, in essence, be part of the faculty nationwide for the program's second year. The five service members in Oregon will build on the foundation provided by last year's inaugural group.

For more information, contact Michelle Markesteyn Ratcliffe at (503) 709-5360.

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