From Fast Food to Farm Fresh – Harvesting Community in the Cafeteria

Thoughts of school lunches may evoke distant memories of sloppy joes, green goop, and processed meat-like substances. Luckily, things are changing in California’s school districts. While Berkeley and Santa Monica first pioneered the programs, the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) is the 2nd largest in California and making it’s own significant imprint on the Farm to School movement. With over 60% of students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals, SDUSD’s Farm to School programming is bringing nutrition back into the school cafeteria, from field to fork.

A Farm to School sign at Suzie’s Farm in San Diego, growing specifically for SDUSD.

Over the past 15 years, many school kitchens have moved away from scratch cooking, opting for microwavable substitutes and other fast food partnerships. With antiquated kitchens, the perceived cost of local food, and often times a lack of culinary skill among food services staffing, it is a constant challenge for cafeterias around California to keep students fed with fresh, healthy fare. But Vanessa Zajfen is hoping to change this.

Hired as California’s first farm-to-school specialist, Vanessa’s position at SDUSD is critical to the future success of farm-to-school programming. With an M.S. in Sustainable Agriculture, her background includes work at the Urban Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College and over five years working in sustainable food production. When learning about this unique position, Zajfen was up for the challenges ahead, writing up the language for a new breed of food specialists.

Farm to School Specialist Vanessa Zajfen making good food happen on ‘a handshake and trust.’

“We are only one piece in this great, complex puzzle. It’s definitely a challenge because we cannot work in isolation. We need the support of the parents, the teachers, and the community at large,” said Zajfen.  “It can be hard to influence kids. There’s no multi-million dollar campaign teaching them how to eat healthy.”

While one of the main goals of the program is nutrition, another key component is teaching students the origins of their food. Working with over 12 local farms, Zajfen has created a farm to school program that includes a Garden to Café project, sourcing garden grown foods in salad bars, local “grab and go” salads, and other healthy cafeteria menu items. Reaching beyond the cafeteria, experiential learning opportunities have been created for students, from taste tests in the classroom to cooking demos and farm field trips funded by local non-profits, including Slow Food San Diego. With plans on developing a mobile farm, the seeds are being planted to teach K-12 the concepts of local, sustainable agriculture.

Crawford High School students displaying the fruits of their labor.

“I’m very proud of our definition of local and the integrity of our program. Others may say they are doing it, but they often don’t even know the origins of their food suppliers. A nameless manufacturer is not local. The first thing we did was define what local meant to us and then really stood behind it. If it doesn’t meet our definitions, we won’t buy it,” said Zajfen.

To be considered “local” by SDUSD’s definition, the food must have been locally grown and/or raised within San Diego County (not manufactured). A three-tier system includes San Diego Local, Regional, and California grown, with preference given to food grown/raised within 25 miles from San Diego County Line. Before each farmer is chosen to participate, Zajfen will conduct a site visit to make sure the farm meets various standards – from organic pest management to sustainably raised hormone and antibiotic-free meat. When choosing local farms, it is important to Zajfen to support small farms (500 acres or less), thereby bolstering the local economy.

“We have a large appetite…supply is always our major issue. But we always strive to keep things local. We currently work with a core group of 12 family farmers. Through local farm contracting, we now have people grow crops specifically for us. It’s wonderful, the relationship and trust we’ve built with the farmers,” said Zajfen.

Vegan chile mole, hot and ready!

Each month a local farmer and their produce are featured in the district’s school cafeteria menus– their “Harvest of the Month” initiative. Menu planning is based on seasonal produce, which allows students to be introduced to a variety of colors and tastes. In one academic year, the program sourced over 90 tons of local foods, and next year will serve at least one all local lunch entrée a day. While it may be challenging to expose kids to new food, the shroud of mystery meat has been unveiled to reveal sustainable food choices that students actually enjoy eating. Less than three years into it, the farm to school program has seen massive success, due in part to Zajfen’s effortless commitment to integrity and community.

“Be supportive of your district and food services department and help them along this journey. Contact your local county agriculture office to find farmers, walk the farmers markets, and spread the word,” said Zajfen. “We have to treat food like its fuel for learning…it’s the only way to change. And be nice to your cafeteria lady!”

-Rachel Hommel, LoaTree team blogger

(pictures provided by SDUSD)

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