San Diego cultivates farm-to-school harvest

san diego student lunches

Faculty and students enjoy a meal from California Thursdays.

When students in San Diego public schools choose a salad for lunch, there is a good chance they know something about the farms and farmers who supplied the produce. Their knowledge comes from San Diego Unified School District’s Harvest of the Month program, an educational component of its farm-to-school initiative.

Salad bars in 173 schools highlight produce that was grown on farms in San Diego County. Each month, a local fruit or vegetable is featured and students see a short video of a farmer explaining how the produce was grown. For example, last November, the featured produce was organic persimmons from Sahu Subtropicals in Fallbrook, Calif. The district bought the farm’s entire crop—10,000 pounds—of persimmons, which were sliced into wedges and served raw on salad bars.

“Some teachers have been so enthusiastic that they show the videos every month before the Harvest of the Month item is served on the salad bar,” says Ashley Cassat, who handles the district’s farm-to-school education and outreach program.

Currently, 15% of the district’s produce comes from farms in San Diego County, and the rest comes from farms throughout the state. The district communicates to farmers exactly how the produce will be used. This helps to build relationships with local farms, says Kathryn Spencer, who handles the district’s farm-to-school produce acquisition program.

The district also procures hyper-local produce from its Garden Café program. The program, which was developed by the district and the Department of Environmental Health, allows schools to create student-run gardens. Produce is then harvested and included on the schools’ salad bars.

“Students are able to see the fruits of their labor,” Cassat says.

In addition to sourcing produce from farms throughout the state, the district provides its schools with dairy products from Hollandia Farms North in San Jacinto, Calif.

The district also participates in California Thursdays, an initiative led by the Center for Ecoliteracy that encourages schools to provide meals that are completely sourced from California farms. The program is being piloted in 30 schools and students are being offered California-sourced chicken drumsticks, vegetables and rolls.

The district would like to expand the program. However, Spencer says that it will be necessary to upgrade some schools’ kitchen equipment to do so efficiently. The district also plans to source more proteins from local farms in the future.

Another goal of Spencer’s is to create more seasonal-based menus that can take full advantage of the produce grown in the region. The district has already started moving away from some produce not grown in California.

“We will offer [students] an orange grown in San Diego [County] over serving a banana grown in Ecuador,” Spencer says. 

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