The Rio School District in Oxnard, CA, is a national model for farm-to-school relationships. The District’s partnership with FoodCorps highlights the importance of nutrition, local agriculture, and providing fresh, healthy ingredients for students.
It’s a rainy Tuesday morning in Camarillo, CA, and local farmer Edgar Espinoza is grateful for the rain. Downpours and atmospheric rivers have caused flood damage to small farms across California, but for Edgar it means a plentiful harvest season which will feed children in the nearby Rio School District.
“That’s what I enjoy. Watching people take a bite out of something, like some of the fruit that I grow. I grow it, but even when I taste it… I swear it’s the best food in the world.” – Edgar Espinoza
Across town at the Rio School District office, FoodCorps service member Thailiya Thomas is working on an updated menu for the schools she serves. In the same office, Alise Echele, a registered dietitian nutritionist, can be heard making orders for vegetables to be delivered as a part of the Farm-to-School program she leads. She tells us:
“I love being with students and supporting them in developing as adventurous eaters, learning the skills that they need to nourish themselves, preparing whole foods, connecting with the local agricultural community – like putting the face to that carrot that they’re eating, and learning about all the people in the community who are a part of growing, tending, harvesting that food, caring for the land, and creating a culture of gratitude for everyone who is a part of our food system.”
Rio School District’s Farm-to-school program is nourishing the next generation and is a stellar example for bringing agriculture and schools together. Lacey Piper, Rio School District’s Director of Child Nutrition & Wellness, explained the origins of their program.
“It really started with the Harvest of the Month programs, which feature a different fruit or vegetable item in the cafeteria, and the question was: how do we source those items locally?”
Today, the district has moved from purchasing a few items here and there from local farmers to intentional seasonal purchasing throughout the year.
As the dew settles on a different farm near the school district, Paul Thurston, Farm Manager at Laubacher Farms, picks carrots that he knows will be used in the salad bars at Rio del Norte Elementary school just 15 minutes away. His carrots are becoming a fan favorite of students and staff alike, and each person can find their favorite preparation as the cafeteria staff will often serve the carrots grilled, sauteed, or in salads.
“It’s really nice to be able to bring a program into fruition and help with it. Maybe the kids can get on a better track and get away from some of that diabetes,” says Thurston.
As morning ends and the lunch bell sounds, educator Francisco Mueller tells his students to be prepared for their next lesson on composting and how it impacts the world around them. He credits California’s School Meals For All policy for being a beacon of hope for his students and their families “I know the parents are really appreciative of the free school lunches that are offered here.” says Mr. Mueller.
He and other staff at the school know that it’s important to feed students meals that nourish their growing minds and bodies, and that the impact of nourishment on a child can be seen in higher test scores, longer attention spans, and numerous other lifelong benefits.
“In order to be successful in the classroom, they need to be well fed, but well fed with healthy foods and that helps them with their energy and their stamina. So I truly respect what child nutrition services does to make that a priority again growing up in this community.” said Betsy Pegler, Principal of Rio del Norte Elementary.
Principal Pegler is a former student of the Rio School District and recalls growing up around agriculture and the role it’s played in feeding her community. She credits her nutrition services staff as well as the team at FoodCorps, who work tirelessly to engage students on hands-on food education and connect them with nourishing school meals.
Stephanie Towner serves at Rio del Norte Elementary through FoodCorps, and as a mother and former Rio School District student, she feels a deep connection to the kids she serves in the school district that she grew up in.
“There’s peace of mind knowing that your kids go to school and that they’re getting nourishing meals that are tasting great. And the benefit is that they’re free to us. It should be a standard worldwide because feeding people is love. And if people go without food, where is the love in that?”
She works with her colleagues to prepare lessons related to food as well as the benefits of composting with Mr. Mueller’s class. Her emotional ties to the work can be heard in the passion she has speaking about what it means for her community to have access to fresh food.
The students themselves had a great deal to say about the meals they receive, and Dillon, a energized 4th grader shared:
“It makes me feel happy because they actually want to take care of us and how much time it takes for the actual food to get here, because first, they have to farm it, then put it into a truck. And then the school has to get the truck to actually put the food in the cafeteria to set it up for everyone.”
Rio School District is setting the bar high for child nutrition and proving that school districts can benefit when they invest in freshly prepared meals and are supported by systems that allow them to do so. One thing’s for certain, this district is providing students with the nourishment they need to thrive in school and beyond.