Operations

How Western Placer Unified is helping students strengthen their connection with food

Chef demos, farmer visits and more have become commonplace at the district this school year.
Farmer speaking with students
Third graders at Western Placer USD get to hear from farmers as part of the district's "Meet the Farmer" series. | Photos courtesy of Christina Lawson

This school year, students at Western Placer Unified School District (WPUSD) in Lincoln, Calif. have gotten the chance to enjoy local scratch-made meals and meet the farmers and chefs behind them thanks to a new farm-to-school program.

The program is the brainchild of Director of Food Service Christina Lawson, who recently completed The Chef Ann Foundation’s Healthy School Food Pathway Fellowship (HSFP), a year-long opportunity where fellows learn the ins and outs of how to successfully operate a school nutrition program that is built around scratch-cooking.

As part of HSFP, fellows are provided funding to complete their own capstone project. Lawson decided to focus her project on increasing the district’s farm-to-school efforts to provide students with a greater connection to their food.

“We realized that we really needed to create opportunity for [students] to learn about where their food comes from,” she says.

Already this school year, students have been able to participate in a variety of farm-to-school events thanks to Lawson and her team.

farm-to-school activity

Students participate in farm-to-school educational activities. 
Engaging all grade levels

WPUSD’s farm-to-school program offers a variety of educational opportunities geared toward different grade levels.

This year, third graders at the district have begun to participate in the nutrition team’s “Meet the Farmer” series where a farmer from the community visits their school and tells them about their job. Students also complete educational activities that tie in with the event.

Lawson decided to focus on third graders for the series since they’re old enough to fully engage in the reading and writing activities that go along with the event, but unlike the fifth graders, “they’re not too cool to participate,” she says.

Older students also have their own age-appropriate programming.

At the middle school level, students participate in the district’s “Meet the Chef” series where a chef from the community is invited to do a cooking demo using ingredients from the school’s Harvest of the Month program.

This year, for example, the district invited a local chef who walked students through how to make persimmon butter.

The series is also offered at the high school level, where students meet with the district’s own chef Adrian Padilla. During the event, students can ask him questions and make suggestions on how to improve the nutrition program.

Already, Padilla has taken their feedback and has created special menu items, including a seasonal pasta dish featuring locally made pasta and local dino kale.

Events like this reinforce to students that the nutrition program is for them, Lawson says, and that the team wants to hear their feedback. 

“We want them to know this is not happening to them, it’s happening with them,” she notes.  

Persimmon butter

Middle school students got to watch how to make persimmon butter. 
Future Growth

For Lawson, being able to participate in HSFP has been a wonderful opportunity.

“It was just an amazing year-long experience,” she says.

And it’s only the beginning for the district’s farm-to-school program. This year simply served as a preview of what’s to come.

“This was really a way for us to pilot these efforts,” says Lawson, adding that the next step for the program will be to apply for grant funding so that they can hire a farm-to-school coordinator.

One of the takeaways Lawson learned from completing her capstone is that it is a lot of work for the team to focus on growing their farm-to-school efforts when they also have to juggle their other job responsibilities.

Lawson believes that having a person whose full-time job is dedicated to farm-to-school, will allow the program to reach new heights.

“It can be so much more with one person dedicated to this work,” she says.