By Chris Collins
NORTH POWDER - North Powder Charter School students are enjoying their meals in a new and roomy cafeteria this month.
The new space, an addition to the district's elementary wing, could nearly contain the old cafeteria in its kitchen area alone.
"This is a big improvement," said Vicky Brown, the district's nutrition and Farm to School program manager.
Brown said the large kitchen area was designed to allow students to learn about food preparation.
"They're our future chefs and they need that education piece," she said.
The expansion was paid for with $300,000 allocatedout of the district's facilities fund, and an $806,000 loan financed through Community Bank, said Superintendent Lance Dixon. The district will pay 3.25 percent interest on the 30-year loan, which after five years will carry no penalty for an earlier payoff.
The total project cost is $1,078,000.
Dixon said that because of the high rate of poverty in the district, the school board voted to finance part of the expansion with a loan rather than asking patrons to approve a bond measure that would increase their property tax debt.
Fifty-six percent of the district's students receive free and reduced-price lunches, Dixon said. The rate for those who live in the town of North Powder is closer to 80 percent.
In addition to the new cafeteria, which will double as a gymnasium and community event center, the expansion includes restrooms and three new classrooms. Grades 3-5 are scheduled to move to the new rooms, Dixon said.
That will lead to relocation of the Learning Resource Center and a computer lab to the modular building that houses the classrooms now.
Other moves also will result from the changes, including moving the science lab to the former cafeteria space. Dixon said the school board approved that plan when it met earlier this week.
More than 200 of the district's 278 students eat lunch daily in the cafeteria, Brown said. Another 100 students are served a free breakfast daily and 10 to 12 elementary students who participate in the after-school program eat a full dinner.
In past years, the district has transferred $20,000 from the general fund annually to support the food services program. Dixon said that cost has been augmented by the school's receipt of grants to help buy local produce and to fund the Farm to School program that has led to development of a school garden.
The Farm to School program also has been boosted with the addition of Anina Estrem, an Oregon FoodCorps service member, who joined the school in August (see story below). Her role is to help with the gardening program, nutritional education and to help the school procure fresh fruits and vegetables from area farms and gardens, Brown said.
Students also will be learning how to preserve the food they grow for use year round.
Last season's garden crops, such as green beans and corn on the cob, were harvested, frozen and are being served during the meal programs, Brown said.
The school also works with community members to bring fresh produce from orchards at Kimberly, and arrangements are being made to coordinate with Purdum's Produce of Fruitland, Idaho, to bring fresh farm goods to the community.
Dixon said Purdum's travels through the area with an empty truck en route to Hermiston to pick up watermelons each year. The hope is to establish a delivery point in Baker City that would allow all schools in Baker and Union counties to pick up produce from Purdum's for use in their meal programs.
Potatoes come from the garden of Rod and Valerie Tachenko ("Val's Veggies") at Medical Springs and Doug Lewis' farm near North Powder. Other fresh fruits and vegetables also are gathered from Farmers Markets during the growing season.
The North Powder Charter School is also among those that receive beef from local producers through the Beef to Schools program sponsored by the Baker County Cattlemen's Association.
Dixon said in the latest round of beef distribution, his school received 147 pounds of beef, mostly hamburger, that will be used in menu items such as spaghetti and tacos.
The superintendent said there was concern that students wouldn't appreciate a menu that included more fresh produce and less processed foods.
"It was an interesting concept," he said. "When we started there was a fear that people would quit eating lunch here."
But that hasn't happened.
"With the good, home-cooked style of food, we have a large group participating," he said.
And the less crowded lunch room has made for a more relaxing and enjoyable experience for students, Brown says.
"Kids are sitting longer and staying," she said.
A fresh approach to school lunches
Making food fun for students is Anina Estrem's goal in her role as a FoodCorps service member at North Powder Charter School.
Earlier in the year, she and the students spent time planting, playing in the dirt and looking for bugs as a way of helping the children learn to enjoy producing their own food.
She hopes that by linking food with fun, students will develop healthy eating habits that include a lifetime of consuming fresh fruits and vegetables, some of which they're learning to grow themselves.
The 24-year-old Estrem is one of just five FoodCorps service workers in Oregon where the program is managed through the Department of Agriculture. The North Powder Charter School was encouraged to apply for the FoodCorps worker because of its successful Farm to School project, said Vicky Brown, the school's nutrition and Farm to School program manager.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture also is a partner in Farm to School, she said.
Other FoodCorps service workers have been placed in food service programs in Multnomah, Tillamook, Marion and Benton counties.
Estrem hopes to pursue a career in sustainable agriculture, especially working in the area of food policy.
"Fresh food has always been a part of my life," Estrem said.
She grew up on a small farm at Newberg where her family raised a large garden and had sheep, dairy goats and chickens.
She is a 2006 graduate of St. Mary's Academy in Portland (which she commuted to daily from Newberg) and a 2010 graduate of Earlham College. She earned a degree in American history and participated in the equestrian program during her four years at the small liberal arts college in Richmond, Ind.
Estrem spent last year in Montana working with the FoodCorps program there.
She came to North Powder in August and will complete her year of service next August, allowing her time to maintain the school garden through the summer and to coordinate with area farmers to provide food to the school in the coming year.
As a FoodCorps service member, she receives a $15,000 stipend, health insurance, career mentoring and a $5,500 education award she'll use to pay students loans. (More information about FoodCorps can be found at foodcorps.org.)
"It's been wonderful," Estrem says of her North Powder assignment. "I really love it out here.
"It's been a blessing to come here and find so much energy and excitement in getting food to the kids and the kitchen staff. It's just really amazing."
- Chris Collins