By. Amy Garfinkel, Farm to School Program Specialist, San Diego Unified School District
If I had a seed for every time I have been asked, “what does farm to school even mean?” I could plant a dozen school gardens. For those of us who work within the farm to school world, this question has a thousand possible answers.
Farm to school means feeling ecstatic when a student excitedly proclaims their love for a new vegetable. It means feeling thrilled when a new local farm partnership proves successful.
It means feeling driven by students’ priceless reactions when they find that something they grew in their very own school garden is being served on their school salad bar. It means feeling awed by the hard work and dedication that school garden volunteers commit year-round to engage students in the process of growing their own food.
It means envisioning daily scratch-cooked school meals made with locally sourced, fresh ingredients. It means utilizing school food service as an opportunity to teach students about healthy food and healthy food systems. And of course, farm to school means celebrating good food and the potential it has to set students up for a lifetime of health, success, and responsible food consumption.
Farm to school is an important bridge between local agriculture and school meals, between school gardens and school salad bars, between farmers and students, and between healthy food and healthy minds. Every local fruit or vegetable served means an investment in our community’s hardworking farmers, in our students’ health, in our schools’ wellness environments, and in a generation of healthy food consumers.
In San Diego Unified School District, our farm to school methodology is threefold: (1) support local farmers and serve healthy meals by buying as much local produce as possible; (2) support school gardens through programs like Garden to Café and Garden Coordinator Gatherings; and (3) promote nutrition knowledge via direct student engagement, community partnerships, and dissemination of resources.
Supporting local farmers can be challenging in a school district of our magnitude. With a student population of approximately 130,000, we serve thousands upon thousands of pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables on our school salad bars each day. We are therefore restricted to working with local farms that can meet our extremely high demand. Luckily, we are located within San Diego County – an area abundant in bountiful farms.
We work closely with our produce distributor to form relationships with local and regional farmers for our Harvest of the Month Program. Each month, we feature a fun new fruit or vegetable on our school salad bars that is sourced from a farm in or around San Diego County. Students can pile their lunch trays as high as they want every Wednesday with local items such as Fuyu Persimmons, Black Splendor Plums, Kumquats, Peewee Avocados, Red Flame Grapes, Golden Nugget Tangerines, Minneola Tangelos, Red Seedless Watermelon, and others.
Farmer cards posted on the salad bars teach students about where that month’s harvest came from, as well as the farmers who grew it and fun facts about the item. For example, October’s Harvest of the Month farmer card tells students that the scrumptious Red Flame Grapes come from a farm in Redlands, California called Old Grove Orange, and depicts the farmer Bob Knight who grew the grapes just for them! A fun fact section explains that grapes can be white, red, black, blue, green, purple, and golden. By reading the card, students learn that grapes are rich in vitamins and fiber, making them not only delicious but healthy too!
We also make Virtual Farm Field Trip videos in-house about each Harvest of the Month item, which teachers can show in their classrooms for a quick nutrition lesson. These videos give students a peek into how the farmers grow and harvest their food, and teach students fun nutrition information about the reasons why the fruit or vegetable is so beneficial to their health.
While we are only able to offer the special Harvest of the Month items on Wednesdays, our salad bars are stocked with a range of colorful fruits and vegetables every day. Salad bars differ in height based on the students’ ages – in elementary schools, the salad bars are shorter, while in middle and high schools, they are taller. Nearly all our schools have at least one salad bar, and many schools have multiple. We have over 350 salad bars distributed throughout the school district.
Seeing students excitedly select items from the salad bar to add to their lunch trays, and then happily munch on their colorful selections, is one of the most rewarding aspects of farm to school work. Every option on our salad bars is served raw. Each day, we offer an assortment of refreshing romaine lettuce, juicy red grape tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, tasty broccoli, crunchy carrot sticks, sweet corn, protein-packed pinto beans, canned fruit, and a sliced seasonal fruit option such as fresh Navel Oranges or fresh kiwis. Students can opt to top their vegetables with a healthy, yogurt-based ranch dressing or a tangy honey mustard sauce that we buy from local company Green Bellies. We work with our produce distributor to ensure that as many of these fresh fruits and vegetables as possible are grown by California farmers.
Sometimes, you may walk into a school cafeteria during lunchtime and notice an exciting additional option on the salad bar – such as sugar snap peas, microgreens, cauliflower, Lacinato kale, celery, red cabbage, chives, green beans, bell peppers, etc. These special offerings are grown by school gardens, and are served on school salad bars as part of our Garden to Café Program.
We established our Garden to Café Program in 2010, and have been steadily growing it ever since. Through a partnership with the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health, we created a protocol that school gardens must abide by and sign to qualify for the program.
By attending one of our trainings, submitting a Garden to Café protocol, and scheduling a site garden inspection, schools within our district can get certified to serve their school garden grown produce on their school salad bar as part of the National School Lunch Program. This program allows students to take part in the entire farm to table process – from planting, growing, and harvesting, to weighing and recording their harvests, to delivering their harvests to the cafeteria, to enjoying the fruits and vegetables of their labor during school lunch.
Our Garden to Café Program requires effective and consistent communication between each school garden coordinator and cafeteria site leader, and expects school gardens to follow a range of best practices to ensure that the food being harvested for the school kitchen is safe and sanitary.
Last year, our participating Garden to Café schools harvested a total of 465 pounds of produce to be served on their school salad bars. Garden to Café could not exist without the hard work of dedicated school garden volunteers at each school, and we are very grateful to these champions of healthy food who generously donate their time, money, and effort to their school garden programs.
To provide an opportunity for the many wonderful school garden volunteers throughout San Diego Unified to network and share ideas with one another, we host quarterly Garden Coordinator Gatherings. Attendees swap successes, share tips, ask each other for support and resources, learn about innovative ideas, and discover what is possible in the realm of school gardens.
Of course, farm to school extends beyond locally sourced school food and school gardens. It also encompasses nutrition education efforts to teach students about healthy eating and local food systems.
Over the past four years, our district has been lucky enough to host a total of five FoodCorps Service Members to spearhead our department’s nutrition education endeavors. Our FoodCorps Service Members visited classrooms and school garden clubs to teach students about healthy food via hands-on activities and edible education projects. Students have learned to make recipes such as massaged kale salads, green smoothies, energy balls packed with seeds and oats, rainbow plant part burritos, and vegetable hummus pinwheel sandwiches.
By coupling nutrition education efforts with local food sourcing and school garden support, our farm to school program ultimately seeks to nourish students with healthy food, teach students about the healthy food they are eating, and support the local and regional farmers who grow healthy food.
So, what does farm to school even mean? To me, it means everything. It means healthy students, healthy schools, healthy communities, and a healthy environment. What does farm to school mean to you?
About the Author
Amy Garfinkel is the Farm to School Program Specialist for San Diego Unified School District’s Food & Nutrition Services Department. She manages the department’s Garden to Café Program, supports the Harvest of the Month Program, provides hands-on nutrition education to students, markets farm to school efforts to the community, and supports school gardens. After serving as the district’s FoodCorps Service Member last year, she is thrilled to continue working in such a progressive school food department that is dedicated to cultivating healthy students. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.