A Day at The Races Supports a Day at the Farm: The Siskiyou Challenge Benefits the Farm-to-School Program
Hundreds of athletes will burn rubber and splash through water to make a dash for the finish line at the annual Siskiyou Challenge Relay Race benefiting Rogue Valley Farm-to-School, a program giving a whole new meaning to the words “fast food.”
“It originated a decade ago when teachers became more interested in having their students learn about farming and who their farmers were,” says the organization’s Executive Director, Sheila Carder. “A lot of our work is based in the schools so the race is a great way for businesses and the public to be involved in what we do.”
The six-leg, multi-sport race on April 27 covers 46 miles over water, across hillsides and through Ashland city streets, pushing the endurance of participants in events like mountain biking, kayaking and running. The popular fundraiser helps the organization get healthier produce in the schools and provide hands-on school garden and farm education.
“There’s a real problem with health, in general, in the United States and it’s becoming more focused around chronic illness stemming from poor nutrition,” says Carder.
Schools receive funds from the USDA for students who qualify for free and reduced lunches and the Department of Defense’s computerized food system allows school food service providers an easy way to order supplies, most of which aren’t healthy, Carder says.
“That food is corporately produced; it’s not locally grown and most of it is very highly processed. So what we’re doing is helping schools find ways of connecting with the local farmers, acting as a sort of benevolent broker because we know schools are so very busy.”
Rogue Valley Farm-to-school program is the regional education hub for Oregon’s Farm-to-school and School Garden Network. One of its main components is working with teachers at the start of the school year to develop a curriculum that utilizes the school garden like an outdoor classroom.
“We’ve learned if kids can get out in a garden and learn how to grow and harvest food, they develop a positive association with healthy food,” Carder shares.
But it’s more than just growing, picking and eating. When they’re not rallying schools together with the company that makes the lunches and local farmers, program volunteers also teach nutrition, lead fieldtrips and help build gardens at schools.
“We do monthly tasting tables in the cafeterias where we bring in a new fruit or vegetable of the month, and work with the food service directors to feature that food on the lunch line,” she says. “We’re kind of weaving nutrition and garden education throughout the school year.”
The organization is also the procurement hub for local farmers, helping support them in developing markets with schools and acquiring the necessary certifications.
“Particularly in this region, we’ve got amazing producers, and schools are serving thousands of meals every week,” she says. “If we can connect the farmers to the schools it brings money into the local economy, supports our farmers and, of course, it’s great for the kids.”
The race is the organization’s biggest fundraiser, bringing in over $35,000 for the program. Carder says as business’s involvement grew, so did their reasons for supporting the race.
“They found that if they sponsored at the team level they could use it as a teambuilding exercise for their employees; they’ll start training and then they’ll decide that they’re going to quit smoking, or they’ll work just to be healthier and feel the benefits,” she adds.
The race starts at 8 am, beginning and ending at Science Works, with festivities from 10 am to 2 pm that will include a health and fitness and outdoor adventure expo, music by The Brothers Reed (Maravel Road Steel Band at Lithia Park Swimming Reservoir), costume contest and locally crafted foods, beer, and root beer.
Saturday, April 27