Back to School with Fresh Produce

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Students are heading back to school, but don’t forget about one of the most important parts of the day - - lunch!

Join us as we connect with foodservice administrators, Fred Espinosa, Director of Food and Nutrition and Janelle Manzano, Farm to School Program Specialist, both with San Diego Unified School District, California’s second-largest school district. Discover how they are prioritizing fresh produce and nutrition education as part of the thousands of meals they serve each day. Whether it’s school-site gardens, salad bars, farmer trading cards, virtual farm tours or in-class nutrition education, the San Diego Unified School District is leading the way, when it comes to promoting fresh fruit and veggies.

Join us as we discuss:

  • School meals with updated nutrition standards that require fruits and veggies
  • Farm to School programming in the San Diego Unified School District
  • Creating a hands-on experience for students with school gardens
  • Attending the IFPA Foodservice Conference with other K-12 school foodservice leaders


Enabling student health with fresh local produce and education

Every day, 31 million children participate in National School Lunch Program and must exit their lunch line with a fruit or vegetable on their plate.

Schools are also required to serve a variety of produce options each week, with many offering entrée salads, fresh vegetable side-dishes, grab n’ go fruit and veggies, and even a return to self-serve salad bars. In addition to lunch, many K-12 schools also offer breakfast, in-class fresh fruit and vegetable snacks, and an after-school supper program.

K-12 schools are large volume foodservice buyers that serve tens-of-thousands of meals to schoolchildren every day. They are often the “largest restaurant in town” and play an important role to introduce kids to a variety of fresh produce, potentially shaping their comfort-level (and taste preferences) for years to come.

Additionally, Farm to School programs are growing (literally!) in school districts across the country. Farm to School benefits a wide range of stakeholders, including students, teachers, parents, community members, and of course, local agriculture partners, such as produce growers, foodservice distributors and more….

Fred Espinosa and Janelle Manzano from the San Diego Unified School District lead one of the most robust Farm to School programs in the country, all while managing the foodservice program for the second-largest school district in California and one of the largest school districts in the Country. Don’t be fooled though. Just because they are in southern California, doesn’t mean the Farm to School programs and partnerships are easy. It takes a lot of time, effort and partnerships.

According to Fred and Janelle, offering of produce in schools is just the beginning. Education about the farming process, health benefits, and meal creation is crucial to fostering students’ long-term desire for fresh fruit and veggies. And this education is being done using a variety of technology, which helps reach more students with their nutrition education messages.

When we are able to show the videos to the children, teachers and parents, they get engaged in fruits and vegetables, and technology has allowed us to do that.

Fred Espinosa

Specialist for Farm to School Program

Students also benefit from hands-on experiences with tastings, health and cooking classes, produce incorporation into curricula, virtual field trips and tours, and school gardening programs.

Multifaceted benefits of school gardens and local partnerships

According to Janelle, hands-on learning experiences such as school gardens and experiential learning increase interest by “selling the sizzle.” Cultivating student interest and investment is vital for building long-term healthy eaters.

Creating these school garden experiences can help make healthy choices more enjoyable and fun while teaching students how to grow their own food.

Janelle describes what she’s seen in these school garden projects. She says, “It's really awesome to see the students get their hands in the dirt and really make those connections.”

Parents and teachers also have the opportunity to get involved with garden experiences. Educators can utilize produce, growing cycles, and concepts related to the life cycle of plants in curricula, giving them a tangible asset to teach with.

Further, many schools allow parents and guardians to volunteer throughout the gardening experience. This allows shared experience and knowledge to expand beyond school grounds.

Finally, local farms have the opportunity to get involved in the school systems. Whether they offer physical tours, virtual tour experiences, classroom lectures, take-home seeds, or something else, local farms can help connect students to the local community and economy.

Benefits across stakeholders in state-wide expansion

Janelle and Fred discuss the exciting possibilities of widespread expansion of Farm to School programs across the state of California and beyond.

The benefits of combining traditional education with nutrition education are clear, and this program is particularly impactful because it’s accessible to all students, regardless of income level.

Also, starting this year in California, the state government has stepped-in to support “universal meals”, which means schools will make meals available at no-cost to all students. This, combined with federal nutrition standards that require serving a fruit and vegetable to students each day as they walk through the lunch line, it’s easy to see how fresh fruits and veggies are becoming easily accessible to children in ways like never before.

In addition to these benefits for students, Farm to School programs also benefit our agriculture partners, including local growers and our produce distributor.

According to Janelle, “Farm to School encompasses local procurement and bringing those fresh fruits and vegetables into our school cafeteria.”

Local farms can reap the immediate benefits of an enormous institutional buyer, like our school district. These partners have come to realize that schools are large volume foodservice buyers, are consistent business, don’t go out of business, we pay on time, and through our programs, can impact children’s taste preferences for years to come.

Understanding the value of partnering K-12 school foodservice programs, and Farm to School initiatives, can go a long way toward developing the next generation of interested, engaged, and excited produce consumers.

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