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.

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.”