New Study Quantifies Potential Health Benefits of Oregon Farm-to-School Bill: A Q&A with Tia Henderson, Upstream Public Health

May 12, 2011, 7:12 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

A bill in Oregon that would provide incentives for schools to purchase fresh local food for school meals would also improve the health of the community and create hundreds of new farm-industry jobs over a five- to 10-year period, according to a health impact assessment (HIA) released today by Upstream Public Health in Portland, Oregon.

An HIA identifies the health risks and benefits of a project or policy and then offers solutions to make the community where the project is taking place a healthier place to live, learn, work and play. In this case, Upstream analyzed the potential health benefits and consequences that would result if Oregon HB 2800, Farm-to-School and School Garden Legislation, was enacted as introduced in 2009.

Upstream Public Health’s HIA was funded by a grant from the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Tia Henderson, Ph.D., research coordinator at Upstream Public Health and co-author of the HIA report, about the study.

NPH: What is Upstream Public Health – and is this your first HIA?

Tia Henderson: Upstream Public Health is a health policy advocacy nonprofit in Portland, Oregon. I have been working on food related research for a few years now, and this was my first health impact assessment.

NPH: Can you explain the legislation on which the HIA was conducted?

Tia Henderson: Oregon's House Bill 2800, if enacted as introduced, provides $19.6 million in reimbursement funds to school districts for buying Oregon food to serve in the federally funded school breakfast and lunch programs. The bill uses dollars from the state’s Economic Development Fund to reimburse school districts 15 cents per lunch and 7 cents per breakfast for buying and serving Oregon food items. It also provides $3 million for a competitive education grant program that school districts can apply to for funding for food, agriculture and nutrition-based activities to help connect the cafeteria to the classroom.

NPH: What were your HIA findings?

Tia Henderson: Our key findings are that House Bill 2800 would create much-needed jobs for Oregonians, help address food security through those new jobs and more students eating school meals, help encourage children's developing healthy eating behaviors, and help children learn better.

NPH: Have you presented your findings to the legislature? If so, what were the results of your testimony and where does the bill stand now?

Tia Henderson: Yes, we presented our findings during a public hearing on March 9th. The sponsors of the bill amended the legislation and incorporated most of our policy recommendations into the amended version. In order to help Oregon's most needy youth, for example, we recommended that the education grants be open to all and that there be criteria to preferentially give funding to school districts serving a low-income student population where at least 40 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced meals. This recommendation was adopted.

Another recommendation was that there be criteria to preferentially give grants to schools with racially diverse populations and to rural or urban areas with limited food access, because some communities of color are disproportionately affected by obesity and chronic diseases, and some areas of Oregon have limited access to resources. [This recommendation was partially adopted].

And we also recommended that education grants be preferentially given to integrated Farm-to-School and School Garden programs where school districts are working to buy local, provide various food, agriculture and nutrition activities, promote local food in the cafeteria and involve the school community in the process. [This recommendation was fully adopted].

The amended version of the bill is now pending.

NPH: Included in the HIA were two community forums. Why were these important, and what were some of the key comments at the forums?

Tia Henderson: We visited Umatilla County in rural Eastern Oregon and the urban area of Lane County in the Willamette Valley. We shared our preliminary findings and recommendations with community members who attended these events and asked them for input.

Most community members felt strongly that this bill should support Oregon jobs as much as possible, that the education grants should be open to any school district that wants to apply, and that existing regional and state organizations should coordinate to help food producers and school districts who want Farm-to-School and School Gardens to succeed.

NPH: Do you think your HIA is a good model that could provide helpful information to other jurisdictions interested in exploring opportunities to solicit increased funding options for school lunches with the same goals – jobs, more fruits and vegetables served during school meals, increased exercise?

Tia Henderson: One of the benefits of this HIA is having much of the research on different health outcomes, including jobs, healthy eating behaviors and education outcomes in one place and discussed in the context of health. The HIA demonstrates to lawmakers how the bill, if introduced as enacted, could affect Oregonians’ health. I do think this would be useful as a guideline for other communities across the country looking into similar, or related, legislation to support farm-to-school efforts. Communities can substitute their own data but the general idea of how it affects jobs, or children's health, is the same.

NPH: What advice would you give to another group that was interested in conducting an HIA?

Tia Henderson: I would say their work will benefit by thinking through what value the HIA could bring to the discussion, and advise them to involve organizations who represent potentially impacted communities as much as resources allow. Our project was strong because we had two advisory committees whose members shared their time and expertise with us. We would not have found as many sources of research, or been able to examine the economic benefits, without these committee members. We feel a great appreciation for all the individuals in Oregon who are working to create farm-to-school and school garden programs on the ground.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.