Federal funding for the school district's farm-to-school program will expire in December, and the district will seek grants to continue buying local food directly from farmers for school lunches.

Federal funding for the school district's farm-to-school program will expire in December, and the district will seek grants to continue buying local food directly from farmers for school lunches.

Tracy Harding and Laura Roll, members of the district's food service overview committee, petitioned the school board Monday night for permission to seek those grants and to find ways to serve raw local vegetables.

Harding, who served as the farm-to-school coordinator funded by the Department of Agriculture, said the program has supplied about 700 pounds of produce — including carrots, squash and onions — from two Applegate farms since the program began this fall.

That equates to the produce the district goes through in a few days, said Amy Korth, the cafeteria manager at Helman Elementary and a representative to the school board.

The vegetables have been incorporated into regular menus and will be featured in cafeterias during the annual harvest meal on Nov. 25. Parents are welcome to come, and local farmers will also attend to talk about their products, Harding said.

The committee also worked with the Ashland Food Cooperative to exchange recipes and feature school menu items on the in-store deli, including carrot and pumpkin cakes, stuffed squash and winter squash and apple stew, she said.

Harding would like to see the program continue beyond the end of this year.

"I'm a very big food security advocate and I think we should be eating local, organic food," she said. "Children learn better when fed fresh, whole foods as opposed to processed, empty foods."

The two biggest barriers to continuing or expanding the program now are funding and food safety.

Harding's position was federally funded, but the produce was purchased through an anonymous donor who provided $500 per month, she said.

Additionally, serving raw local food greatly increases safety risks, said Jeff Ashmun, regional manager for Sodexo, the company that runs the school lunch program.

Sodexo works through distributors that allow for economies of scale and reduced liabilities that purchasing directly from farmers does not, he said. The company does provide some local produce through its distributors, Ashmun said, such as organic pearl potatoes from Klamath Falls, Hermiston watermelons and Canby cucumbers.

"We're doing it where we can, where it makes sense," he said. "Direct to the farmer is one way to get local food, and through our local suppliers is another way."

Sodexo also recently hired a sustainability coordinator who will work with several districts in the area to improve practices, he said.

Board member Heidi Parker said she recognized the challenges of a large company working with small local farmers.

"I really appreciate Sodexo's willingness to work with us," she said. "It truly is a win-win for everyone."

Although the program may not receive any more federal funding, the state chose Ashland as a pilot for a reason, Harding said.

"They saw Ashland as a community that was going to embrace farm-to-school and figure out a way to move forward," she said.

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.