People and Passion Drive at Riverside Unified's Innovative Farm to School Model

It’s early on a Monday at the Riverside Unified School District’s Central Kitchen and Riverside Food Hub. The place is already humming with activity at 5:30 in the morning. It’s barely light out, yet dozens of apron-clad school nutrition workers are on site to process farm-fresh onions, tomatoes, avocados, and melons for the food hub, which serves Riverside Unified School District along with six other local school districts. (Collectively, these districts serve almost 87,000 meals each day.) The facility is massive and sits in a Riverside warehouse district. There are industrial-sized food processors, immersion blenders, steam jacket kettle skillets, and chillers to process over $600,000 of local produce per year, about one-third of the school district’s food budget. 

The Center for Ecoliteracy  – a School Meals for All Coalition member – and Riverside Unified have teamed up under the California Food for California Kids® Network, to serve fresh, locally-grown school meals. As a member of the Network since 2014, Riverside Unified is a leader in farm-to-school and their innovative model could offer lessons to other districts seeking to build or expand their own local procurement practices.

Maria Montes, a kitchen supervisor, helps young students learn salad bar etiquette.

The central kitchen and food hub prepares fresh food to deliver to all 30 Riverside Unified elementary schools, each with its own salad bar. The food hub is a vital part of the district’s efforts to increase the amount of fresh, locally-grown food as California’s new School Meals for All policy goes into effect and funding for related programming increases. 

“They should have done that a long time ago because everybody has a story,” said Julie Crozier, who was busy using a food processor to dice hundreds of onions. Crozier serves as a cafeteria worker after working early mornings at the food hub. “I can tell the kids that are hungry, you know. I see them on a daily basis when they come in and they’re crying and they’re like, ‘Yesterday was my only meal.’ It breaks my heart.”

Julie Crozier works at the food hub and at a local cafeteria. She can tell when kids are hungry.

Leadership and Peer-to-Peer Learning

The Riverside Food Hub and Riverside Unified School District are innovators in the farm-to-school movement, which was evident the day we visited. Staff from Santa Ana Unified School District, also a member of the California Food for California Kids Network, joined the visit to learn how to expand their farm-to-school program. Walking through the food hub as staff busily prepared lunch for that day, Scott Berndt, Riverside Unified School District Central Kitchen and Food Hub Manager, explained how he sources local produce to the newest member of the Santa Ana Unified nutrition staff, Moises Munoz Plascencia. Plascencia, a former anthropology lecturer, is on day three as the new Farm to School Coordinator for the district. His colleagues are along with him: Josh Goddard, Director of Nutrition Services, and Tracey Roussel, Nutrition Specialist.

Josh Goddard, Director of Nutrition Services, Santa Ana Unified School District; Tracey Roussel, Nutrition Specialist, Santa Ana Unified School District; Scott Berndt, Riverside Unified School District Central Kitchen and Food Hub Manager; Moises Munoz Plascencia, Farm to School Coordinator, Santa Ana Unified School District.

Santa Ana Unified recently opened a central kitchen for their district with funding from a $10 million bond measure. They hope to use the new facility to process fresh, local produce, but their major distributors are telling them that scratch cooking is impossible. Goddard refused to believe it. He’s excited about his new central kitchen and imagines preparing fresh meals made with local ingredients, eliminating any dependence on distributors of packaged, unseasonal food who don’t believe in their vision. A pillar of the California Food for California Kids Network is peer-to-peer learning: with minimal funding, strict nutrition guidelines, and the drive to craft appetizing meals, school nutrition directors are adept at creative problem-solving. The network provides an avenue to share resources and lessons learned.

The food hub sources produce from over 20 farmers within a 100-mile radius, most of whom use regenerative farming methods, focusing particularly on soil health and carbon sequestration practices. Even though Riverside is ranked the 14th largest agricultural producer in California, there isn’t enough local food to meet the demand of the food hub. Berndt recommends Placencia start by approaching farmers at local farmer’s markets and stopping by local farms to ask what they grow and if they’d be willing to sell to a school district to provide their produce directly to students. 

Riverside Unified School District nutrition staff prepare avocados for guacamole.

To read the entire blog, visit the Center for Ecoliteracy.