Meet the Heroes Nourishing California’s Students

Before School Meals For All and additional investments in related nutrition programming, California school districts were only reimbursed for feeding the lowest-income students. This left far too many families behind, particularly in California, where the cost of living is among the highest in the nation. 

Now, with the opportunity to transform school food and expand the many co-benefits of more freshly prepared California-grown school meals, the Office of Kat Taylor and the School Meals For All sponsors are visiting school districts and farms across the state to spotlight successful nutrition programs and learn how we can continue to advocate on their behalf.

Our visits to date have included Los Angeles Unified, Riverside Unified, Lawndale Unified, Palm Springs Unified, Coachella Valley Unified, Desert Sands Unified, and San Diego Unified. We have more school site visits planned for 2023. Below are a few excerpts from our most recent visits.

Los Angeles Unified School District

On December 7th, Los Angeles Unified – the state’s largest school district – hosted California First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, Senator Maria Elena Durazo, Assemblymembers Luz Rivas and Miguel Santiago, and Kat Taylor along with members of the School Meals for All Coalition to celebrate and showcase California’s landmark investments in providing every K-12 student free, nutritious meals. 

At John Liechty Middle School, Cafeteria Manager Rosa Garcia described the improvement in kitchen infrastructure and capacity to prepare and serve tastier, freshly-prepared meals for the school’s more than 800 students. “We are now able to freshly prep food like we did twenty years ago. Making meals available for all children makes me proud,” she shared. 

Nearly a dozen media outlets attended to cover a roundtable with state and district leaders and local parents to discuss how School Meals for All has transformed the student experience. 

Los Angeles Unified Nutrition Director Manish Singh then led a tour of Esperanza Elementary School’s garden “Habitat” and Outdoor Learning Center and one of the district’s first fresh salad carts — where students enthusiastically constructed their own fruit and vegetable plates featuring California-grown produce. Four hundred more of these carts will soon arrive at schools throughout the district.

Riverside Unified School District

The Riverside Unified School District’s Central Kitchen and Riverside Food Hub prepare fresh food for all 30 Riverside Unified elementary schools along with six other local school districts. Collectively, these districts serve almost 87,000 meals each day. 

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. 

Nutrition Services Director Adleit Asi champions the “Farmers Market Salad Bar. It features produce from over 20 farmers within a 100-mile radius, most of who focus on regenerative agriculture and restoring soil health. 

“Any local purchases for produce go to our local farmers who then spend their money at local businesses, multiplying our investment over six times,” says Asi. “And the kids get introduced to local, seasonal, and sometimes new fruits and vegetables.”

It’s a unique model though. While no other school district in California operates its own food hub and central kitchen, serving every school with a fresh salad bar, other districts can still learn valuable lessons about sourcing local food.        

Scott Berndt, Riverside Unified School District Central Kitchen and Food Hub Manager recommends 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 products directly. This can be intensive and time-consuming though so the state is looking into ways to help school nutrition directors and local farmers build relationships.

As a member of the Center for Ecoliteracy’s California Food for California Kids® 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

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Lawndale Elementary School District

One of the smallest school districts in Los Angeles County, Lawndale Elementary School District consists of eight public schools and serves just under 5,000 students. 

Recently promoted to Director of Nutrition and Wellness, Lissette Rooney is hungry to hire more staff and improve Lawndale’s menus. The participation rate has gone up by 5%! She says one of her biggest needs is a larger kitchen at Billy Mitchell Elementary. There is only so much you can do with one small walk-in cooler, a reach-in freezer, and a combi oven. 

“The quality could potentially be a lot better if we could source California locally grown apples and have the equipment to cut them,” she says. “We want to be good stewards of public funds while still getting and serving high-quality and delicious foods. Those are the things I dream about.”

Behind the school, through a secret path, students can enjoy the Mitchell World of Plants where orange monarch butterflies flutter between loquat, white sapote, and fig trees. Garden beds overflow with cherry tomatoes, spring onions, and eggplants. Food Corps AmeriCorps service member Brandi Aldana says students are more likely to enjoy new fruits and vegetables if they’re more engaged through activities like gardening or mindful tasting. 

So we ended our visit with mindful grape tasting in Mitchell World of Garden with fifth-grade students, Virginia Castro (Lawndale Superintendent), Gretchen Janson (Deputy Superintendent), Courtney Gillette (Billy Mitchell Elementary Principal), Kitchen Staff, Rosa Vasquez (Billy Mitchell Senior Food Services Assistant), Jasmine Leon Guerrero (District Representative, Sen. Bradford), and Brandon Stansell (District Representative Asm. Tina McKinnor.)

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