Farm to school flourishes in SD

When the San Diego Unified Schools District began its Farms to School program three years ago, it had the extra leverage of serving 130,000 meals each day during the school year. That makes its purchases on par with a major grocery chain.

But with the goal of serving meals where at least 15 percent of the food is grown locally, that means finding an awful lot of food nearby.

“We asked ourselves, how can we get the food that’s served at white tablecloth restaurants here, in our schools for our kids,” said Vanessa Zafjens, the district’s Farm to School specialist. “Because of the relationships we have with local farmers and our ability to commit to large, regular purchases, we’ve been able to get very high quality, very fresh organic fruits and vegetables.”

Zafjens points out that she’s the only fulltime Farm to School specialist in a California school district.

Moving kids towards healthier food isn’t new to the district. The lunch program launched salad bars nine years ago, Zafjens points out.

“There are kids who’ve been eating with us their whole lives,” she said.

The school district wants to lead students towards healthier food at a time when childhood obesity has been declared an epidemic, by serving fruits and vegetables so tasty that kids will naturally come back for more.

“It’s a learning process for the kids and it’s picking up steam, said Fred Espinoza, manager of acquisition and production for the district. “We’ve implemented the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act beginning this year.”

Healthy Kids is a shift from the Food Pyramid concept to the healthy plate idea, with emphasis on fruits and vegetables, healthier grains and better quality food – which means fresh and local.

“The whole nation is trying to get their arms around this,” Espinoza said. “It really helps us that we have a great farm to school program – we love to have kids eating food that’s nutritious and delicious, and that has to start with fresh and local.”

But the county’s declared obesity epidemic, and the childhood obesity initiative have brought stronger emphasis – and better financing – than ever before.

Our first year, we purchased 180,000 pounds of local food,” Zafjens said. “Last year, it was 360,000 pounds.”

“One of our problems is we can buy all the produce a farmer can grow,” she said. “But at first, that’s asking farms to take a lot of risk. Now we commit to large quantities and we’re a consistent purchaser so more things become available.”

For example, this year the district is buying local nuts and tofu, for the first time. Micro greens, from another local organic farm, are part of every salad and every salad bar.

“We get opportunity buys, like tomatoes, avocados, oranges and even blueberries and blackberries,” Zafjens said.

The school districts commitment to purchase has helped organic farmers, including Stehly Farms Organics and Suzie’s Farm, according to Jared Bray, produce manager for Stehly Frams Organics.

“We started a number of years ago with navel oranges – having a reliable client of this size helps us plan our farming,” Bray said. “And if we can sell at near the price we sell to our retail outlets and it helps get kids interested in fresh, healthy food then we’re happy to do it.”

How fresh?

“What we pick today we ship within 24 hours,” Bray said.

“We started a number of years ago with navel oranges – having a reliable client of this size helps us plan our farming,” Bray said. “Knowing I this extra 10,000 pounds sold, it allows me to plan my harvest.”

Right now, Stehly is getting ready to ship blackberries, a fruit the students probably didn’t get a lot of.

The prices Stehly offers the school district are lower than the rest of its retail outlets, but Bray sees that as a good deal.

“The kids thoroughly enjoy the fresh fruit – you get them young and give them an interest in fruit they probably wouldn’t have gotten from eating the weeks old trucked in produce that once was the norm,” he said. “The kids are driving the demand and what they want is often something new to them, something the schools were able to introduce because of our special relationship.”

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