It’s Monday afternoon, and the kids at Elder Creek Elementary School are heading into their last classroom of the day: the cafeteria.
Today’s lesson? Eating foods that are in-season and local.
The class is part of a series run by the Sacramento Food Literacy Center to teach kids about healthy eating. In this lesson, they puzzle out that “local” means Sacramento, or California, before turning to why it might be good to eat in-season and local.
“Have you ever had a peach in summer?” one green-aproned teacher asks. “What did it taste like?”
Heads go up and down and hands fly toward the ceiling.
“Sweet and juicy!” one student says.
“That’s because you’re eating a peach in-season,” the teacher explains. “It’s going to taste really good and it’s going to be cheaper.”
The kids fill the room with a drumroll to introduce the produce of the week: arugula, which receives mixed reactions. An entire table gives a collective shake of the head when asked if they want to try it, but hands shoot up at another table when a volunteer asks, “Who wants a big leaf?”
Levi, a student from Elder Creek Elementary, bites into a lettuce wrap he made during a Food Literacy Center class.Janelle Salanga / CapRadio
Soon, the cafeteria fills with conversation, color and the smell of chopped vegetables. The arugula is joined by carrots, cabbage, cilantro, mint and green onions, which kids pile onto a sturdy lettuce leaf and eat like a wrap.
The Sacramento Food Literacy Center was one of the first groups to receive a California Farm to School grant in 2017, part of a statewide effort to offer students healthy, local meals at school.
“We really believe in the power of eating in-season because it just tastes better,” said Amber Stott, who founded the center. “It's also cheaper.”
The effort faces challenges, however: More than 20% of Californians struggle with food insecurity, which COVID-19 has only exacerbated.
But California is working to track progress on efforts to serve students healthier food. A new “farm-to-school road map for success” report was released in February, and First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom has made youth food literacy and student access to nutritious meals a priority issue.
“With California being this agricultural titan, producing over a third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of the nation’s fruits and nuts, we saw this not just as an opportunity, but as our responsibility to ensure California children were eating these nutritious, delicious and locally sourced meals,” Siebel Newsom told CapRadio.
The report, spearheaded with California Department of Food and Agriculture secretary Karen Ross, states that roughly one-quarter of all low-income California students have relied on school lunches throughout the pandemic, receiving around 50% of their daily calories from them.
Now, with the passage of the United States’ largest free student lunch program in 2021, what young people eat depends on school-provided food more than ever.
Gardens in schoolyards
This report is California’s first attempt at measuring what students eat, while also nailing down its goals to expand farm-to-school programs.
Funding for farm-to-school efforts like the Sacramento Food Literacy Center became permanent in 2020, when it was allocated $1.5 million in the state budget. Governor Gavin Newsom also set aside $8.5 million in 2020, upped to $60 million in 2021, for the California Farm to School Incubator Grant program.
Cilantro, green onions and lettuce are some of the ingredients students work with to make the lettuce wraps.Janelle Salanga / CapRadio
Siebel Newsom says that farm-to-school efforts can start with a garden — but schools need money to make that happen.
“Say a school wants to create a garden. Somebody has to tend to that garden, and then who’s going to teach the culinary class?” she said.
Another option, she says, could be a scratch kitchen: where school meals are prepared from raw ingredients instead of processed and pre-packaged items.
“When you build out a scratch kitchen … you need a chef. And then you need servers. And you need folks to source the food, you need folks to prep the food, package it, wash it, clean it, prepare it, cook it, deliver it,” she said of the jobs it could create.
The state report highlights several projects that serve as real-life examples, such as Three Sisters Gardens and Fiery Ginger Farm, both located in West Sacramento and sending their produce to school kitchens.
Replacing processed foods with healthier ingredients
One school district in the county, Sacramento City Unified, recently finished a project similar to a scratch kitchen. Kelsey Nederveld, assistant director of nutrition services, says its Central Kitchen will better connect students in the district’s 81 schools to local food.
“Prior to the Central Kitchen, nutrition services never had a centralized place to produce meals,” she said. “The kitchens, all  of them, were having to prepare the food and serve it for breakfast and lunch.”
The debut of its Central Kitchen has been delayed due to the pandemic, but Nederveld says that once it opens, it’ll help schools offer meals they might not have had the capacity to prepare.
For instance, vegetables that need to be washed and cut have often proven tricky to deliver to schools. The Central Kitchen would provide a shortcut for these schools since Nederveld says it would prepare certain ingredients in advance – similar to a meal kit subscription like Blue Apron.
“Right now, without the kitchen, we rely heavily on manufacturers to provide us with entree items [like] chicken patties, sandwiches or pizza,” she said. “With the Central Kitchen, it will allow us to expand our menu options, provide consistency and really, really control the ingredients that go into school food and really eliminate a lot of the processed food items.”
Teaching kids about their food
Even though Amber Stott’s Food Literacy Center already has partnerships with local farms like Fiery Ginger and Root 64, she says part of why the center’s lessons focus on eating in-season and local is because she started by working with fruits and vegetables easily available at food banks. That tends to be in-season produce, which is cheaper and more plentiful.
“When tomatoes are just pumping out of the farms, people can get them at a more affordable price. And that is really important for the families that we're serving,” Stott said.
Students from Elder Creek Elementary watch as a Food Literacy Center volunteer prepares vegetables for them to make into lettuce wraps.Janelle Salanga / CapRadio
A crucial part of increasing food literacy and getting kids excited about fruits and vegetables is meeting students where they are with foods that are familiar to them.
While Stott initially wrote all the recipes that students cooked, she’s no longer the only author: The kids have a say, too.
“A couple of kids at Pacific Elementary double-dog-dared me to make a broccoli taco taste good,” she recalled. “That was a recipe I developed with them. And we had a taco tasting party with the whole school, and we had a couple of different tacos and let the kids vote on their favorite one — and the broccoli potato taco won.”
In 2020, when more Afghan refugee students arrived in the Sacramento region, Stott’s group reached out to an Afghan caterer and asked her for help developing recipes. The caterer is training both Food Literacy Center staff and Sacramento City Unified School District Nutrition Services workers on the history of Afghan cuisine and regional influences on popular dishes, Stott said.
“That’s really important to us, that we are getting it right when it comes to culturally relevant foods and actually understanding, ‘Where do they come from? Why do certain regions eat the foods that they eat?’” she said.
Tracking the farm-to-school movement
Though there’s currently a U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm to School census, it doesn’t offer extensive California data. And overall, there’s a lack of broader research on farm-to-school programming.
California’s recent farm-to-school road map report outlines the need for consistent metrics to track progress, referencing the Oregon Farm to School Counts website as a model for how California can present data.
Siebel Newsom says she’s excited by the results so far and hopes tracking will help provide more evidence that farm-to-school is worth growing.
“As we like to say, ‘As California goes, so goes the country,’” she said. “Our goal is to track metrics in California and set a national standard for farm-to-school throughout the country.”
In advance of the 2022-23 budget, the governor’s California blueprint proposes another $450 million to upgrade school kitchen infrastructure and support investment in cooking with healthy ingredients from scratch.