Novato students at a gleaning event. NOVATO, Calif.—At the Novato Unified School District, the child nutrition department is reaching out to the community to help extend the department’s healthy message outside of the cafeteria. Miguel Villarreal, director of food and nutritional services, has worked hard to revamp the district’s menus with healthy food items, and he wanted a way to connect the community to what was taking place in his cafeterias. He did this by organizing gleaning events at local farms. Gleaning is collecting leftover crops from farmers after their fields have been commercially harvested.
“I read in a book about connecting the three C’s, that are cafeteria, classroom and community,” Villarreal says. “In order for our students and families to understand why we are doing what we are doing [in the department], we all need to deliver the same messages over and over. We know that in the long term, that’s the kind of impact it’s going to take for students and families to understand why this [healthy message] is so critical. What better way for us to deliver that message than by bringing families to our local farms?”
For the past five years Villarreal has coordinated gleaning events for families at local farms. Every Monday during harvest season—normally late summer to November—Villarreal, district personnel, students and their families visit farms and harvest crops. The harvested crop is then given, free of charge, to the child nutrition department. The gleaning program is coordinated with Marin Organic, a cooperative of organic farms in Marin County.
The collaboration between Marin Organic and the child nutrition department began when Villarreal started purchasing local produce from the co-op. Villarreal says about 95% of the fruit he serves in his schools is from these local farms. Villarreal says about 25% of his fruit is ultra local—within 20 miles of the district—and he hopes to increase that number to 50% in the coming years.
“We’re really making a concerted effort to purchase as much of our food from local growers,” Villarreal says. “I know many [schools] are doing farm to school, but the part that sets us apart is the fact that we’re making an effort to bring many of our families to the farms. We’re making our families aware of the foods being grown and why we are using these particular farms, which are organic. We’re also using this as an opportunity to educate the farmers who didn’t realize that this food was being used in the cafeteria and what that means to the students’ health. The students hear this message about how the soil has to be healthy in order for them to be healthy because you are what you eat. It’s those lessons that are being tied in.”
On Fridays before gleaning Mondays, Villarreal sends out notices to the community to inform them of where the gleaning event will take place. Carpools to the farm are usually arranged.
Villarreal says he never knows what produce will be available for gleaning until he gets to the farm. “There have been times when we’ve gleaned up to 500 pounds of spinach and that’s been brought back. We can take as much spinach as we want to use in our program,” he says.
“It’s gleaned on Monday, delivered [by Marin Organic] on Tuesday and served on our menus on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.”
Last year Villarreal started a new Thanksgiving gleaning event, where the community donates the gleaned produce to the city’s food banks to use in their Thanksgiving meals. “School is not in session [during this event] so this really makes it a communitywide event,” Villarreal says. “It’s really a good feel-good story for the entire community.”