Nourish Students With Quality, Fresh School Meals 

San Diego Unified Excels Despite Multiple Challenges; Calls for More Flexibility and Funding to Help Build Back Better

It’s Wednesday afternoon and the kids are just starting their next class: in the garden.

Students at Sherman Elementary are learning how to harvest, wash, and cook Swiss chard and kale. Salt, oil, and garlic are key.

“Yum, it smells so good,” says one student, as garlic caramelizes. 

The garden – just blocks from San Diego’s “Skid Row” – is an urban oasis of raised beds, composting and cooking stations, and monarch butterflies.

The outdoor learning space supports classroom learning, enables students to grow and appreciate fresh, wholesome foods.

“It’s also about taste education,” says Janelle Manzano, San Diego Unified School District’s farm-to-school specialist.

Manzano, who roams the district teaching kids about the local veggies and fruits on their school meal plates, has just come from Clark Middle School Cafeteria, which serves as a central kitchen for eight schools, serving 8,000 students. 

Both Clark Middle School and Sherman Elementary are a part of San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), which has 20 central kitchens and serves 33,300 breakfasts, 48,500 lunches, and 10,000 suppers each day.

At Clark Middle School, she introduces kumquats, sourced from local farmer Ron Sahu, as a part of the state’s farm-to-school harvest of the month program. 

“When they first put the kumquat in their mouths, they have a sour face, and it’s hilarious,” Manzano said. “They’re skeptical at first, but I encourage them to keep chewing. Then all of a sudden their faces relax, and they’re like, ‘oh, it’s actually nice and sweet.’ It’s a fun time with the kumquats.”

Tasting education is just one part of SDUSD’s robust school meal program. During the pandemic, while students learned remotely, the district successfully implemented and expanded its grab n’ go meals, providing more than 30 million to students and their families.

The need was apparent. One-quarter of all low-income California students relied on school lunches throughout the pandemic, receiving around 50% of their daily calories from them, according to the “farm-to-school road map for success” report.

COVID hangover

All indications show reliance on school meals for healthy calories are not going away any time soon. Inflation that has driven up prices for food and fuel for consumers has also driven up demands on free food like at food banks.

Rates of reported hunger have been increasing since early August when nearly eight percent of respondents to a Household Pulse Survey said they “sometimes” or “often” did not have enough to eat.

Fred Espinosa, SDUSD Interim School Nutrition Director, said hamburger meat jumped from $1.99 a pound to $5.99 per pound. 

“The cost of food inflation is going to have a dramatic impact,” he said. “We’re feeling the COVID hangover.”

In addition to inflationary prices, schools must contend with staffing shortages and supply chain disruptions. 

“Students absolutely love our mandarin chicken,” said school nutrition supervisor Linda Disbro, “but we haven’t been able to source it due to supply chain issues. So it’s teriyaki chicken for the foreseeable future.” 

Then, there’s the looming expiration of federal waivers, which provided higher meal reimbursements. All of these challenges mean school nutrition departments across the state will continue to struggle to meet demand. 

“We simply don’t have the employees,” said Espinosa. “We won’t be able to send food home, we’ll have higher reimbursement rates, less flexibility on the menus — all that is instrumental to getting quality food to children and their families.”

To help offset these challenges, Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed a package of funding that will help districts implement school meals for all, support farm-to-school, train staff, and equip kitchens to serve more freshly prepared meals.

While these investments recognize both the critical role school meals have in feeding our children and our school nutrition professionals who have shown up to feed children every day during the pandemic, there’s concern it won’t be enough to meet demand. 

Espinosa acknowledged the additional pressures that will come once the USDA’s nationwide child nutrition waiver expires June 30, 2022. The nationwide waiver allowed for increased flexibility when supply chain disruptions limited the ability to get certain required food to students, they increased meal reimbursements, and meant less bureaucratic paperwork for busy staff, he said.

“We appreciate help at the state and federal levels but more needs to be done,” he said. “If you want good food for children, you need a good product. You need good infrastructure, and trained, dedicated, and passionate employees who believe in what they’re doing.” 

One nutrition staff member, who has worked in Clark Middle School cafeteria for 33 years and spoke to us on the condition of anonymity, says food was fresher before the pandemic. 

“We used to have salads that were fresh. Beans were cooked fresh. Turkey was cooked fresh. It was enjoyable,” she said. “It’s sad to see now. For a lot of the kids, this is their only meal. As a mom, that’s what gets to me and why I’ve stayed in this position for so long.” 

Preparing fresh meals with fewer staff members, less funding and less flexibility is challenging and exhausting. Sherwin Laroya, who oversees food procurement at eight schools, including Clark Middle School, says his biggest challenge has been covering for his staff, who are either sick or left the workforce. 

“I have to jump from one location to another to help out,” Laroya said. “Since 2019, we’ve been facing lots of challenges. It’s a lot.”

Staff told us they need relief, such as monthly stipends for working in-person while others got to work from home, training opportunities to improve their work skills, and flexible work hours. During the pandemic, if work got done, staff at some districts were allowed to go home, now it’s back to normal and they haven’t really had a break since March 2020. 

Schools have had to get creative to keep fresh ingredients on the menu. With salad bars closed, Chef Juan Zamorano has adopted alternatives like his famous oven-roasted veggies. This plate requires more complex preparation than a salad, and so possibly presents an opportunity to teach staff seasoning and knife handling skills. 

“School food is changing, and we want to be on the forefront of that change,” said Chef Juan. “We want to provide our employees with the right technology, like Combi Ovens, and we want to provide them with the culinary knowledge. We want them to be part of the creative process.”

Strengthening Farm to School

California is well-positioned to strengthen districts’ ability to serve more freshly prepared meals. The state provides over a third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of the nation’s fruits and nuts. 

However, a number of barriers exist: Fewer staff members mean less time for prepping fresher foods and less time to devote to the flexibility and creativity that come with buying from local farmers. Sourcing from local farmers requires relationship building and a strong distribution plan; these require time to develop and finesse to meet the unique needs of school food service. For example, schools require vegetables like broccoli to be washed and cut —- something small-scale farmers might find challenging and school food workers often lack the equipment to handle at the scale necessary to serve thousands of meals a day.

The Governor’s proposed budget calls for 16 new positions to help support and expand the farm-to-school network. To be truly helpful to school districts, candidates should be well versed in school districts’ needs, if they’re going to help us build relationships and negotiate contracts, says Espinosa. It’s a steep learning curve, and both farmers and school nutrition staff lack capacity.

Others in the industry agree – experience in school procurement is essential. Even translating industry-speak can be a challenge.

“Consider servings sizes vs acreage,” says Kelsey Nederveld, Assistant Director of Nutrition Services at Sacramento Unified School District. “We speak in servings. Farmers use acreage. How many servings can you get in 1 acre of kale?”

It’s a steep learning curve and one thing both nutrition staff and farmers have in common is a lack of capacity. They will need as much support in building relationships and negotiating contracts as possible.

Back at the Sherman Elementary garden, Christina Abuelo shows students how to pick and eat fava beans. She’s been volunteering at the garden 40 hours a week for 12 years, unpaid. She says she feels a personal connection to supporting students from low-income communities and hopes more fresh veggies, like the ones grown in her garden, can be served at school.

“A lot of kids are getting their nutrition in school, and we don’t always know what happens after,” she said. “Some kids are hoarding food because they don’t know where their next meal is going to come from. So here, we want to empower kids. We’re teaching them to harvest food, cook it, and eat it. It’s incredibly rewarding.”

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