Napa Valley USD started scratch cooking meals in 2017 following infrastructure investment.
New report ‘plants the seeds’ for California farm-to-school movement
July 25, 2022
A report released earlier this year from the California Department of Food & Agriculture and the Office of First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom
lays the groundwork for rethinking how California feeds its students.
Planting the Seed” was released in February following two years of research on the farm-to-school movement, which seeks to connect communities to fresh food from local producers through school nutrition and education programs.
In 2020, First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom and CDFA Secretary Karen Ross convened the Farm to School Interagency Working Group and Advisory Committee, a diverse cross-section of stakeholders and practitioners in the fields of education and agriculture in California.
The working group and advisory committee held more than 100 learning conversations with stakeholders. They also incorporated the voices of youth and producers through 11 roundtable discussions that provided a more comprehensive view of the farm-to-school movement at every level.
“California — which produces over a third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts — is well-positioned to build upon these efforts and improve child health and well-being through the expansion of farm-to-school programming,” wrote Siebel Newsom and Ross in their introduction to the report. “We hope this report will serve as a roadmap for establishing an equitable, resilient, and scalable farm-to-school movement that nourishes all students and provides schools, families, farms, and the environment the opportunity to thrive.”
Citing research on the benefits to student health and achievement, food security, education, agriculture, the environment, the economy and racial justice, the report lays out the “why” for creating more connections between farms and schools. It also contains several recommendations for lawmakers, educators and producers on how to cultivate these relationships.
California has already made investments in this movement. In 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Budget Act included $1.5 million in permanent funding for the California Farm to School Network and $8.5 million in one-time funds to start the California Farm to School Incubator Grant Program. The most recent budget for 2022-23 includes $600 million in one-time funding for school kitchen infrastructure, food service employee training and compensation. The budget also includes $100 million in one-time funds to support LEA procurement practices for plant-based, California-grown, minimally processed foods, or to prepare meals fresh onsite.
But much more time and funding are needed to bring the farm-to-school movement to more students. Schools would need to invest in kitchen infrastructure and hire a workforce that would scratch cook student meals, according to the report. LEAs have acknowledged barriers such as having the time and support they need to develop relationships with local producers.
Bright spots
Throughout the report, several districts were mentioned as “bright spots” for implementing farm-to-school practices.
Fresno Unified School District: The district works collaboratively with several groups to overcome the numerous challenges socially disadvantaged producers face when accessing the school food marketplace.
Fresno Unified began working with the Asian Business Institute and Resource Center (ABIRC) in 2019 after ABIRC reached out to discuss farm-to-school opportunities. Together, they created a Thai chile sauce that continues to be served at the district’s middle and high school campuses. The Thai chile sauce is made with Thai chiles from local farmers that work with ABIRC.
Fresno Unified Nutrition Services Department and ABIRC are both recipients of the California Department of Food & Agriculture Farm to School Grant. Fresno Unified highlighted ABIRC farmers where possible in the nutrition education component of the grant. Students were able to learn about local agriculture and nutrition through nutrition newsletters and posters in all of the district’s cafeterias.
Natomas Unified School District: The district’s buyer Vince Caguin established a relationship with local tribe member and farmer Alfred Melbourne of Three Sisters Gardens. Caguin then helped Melbourne navigate school food procurement processes, food safety guidelines and delivery logistics to create a purchasing relationship built on shared values of serving future generations.
Riverside Unified School District: The district increased overall participation in school meals served to student and teachers by 9 percent after initiating its farm-to-school salad bar program in 2005. According to the report, students at one site who ate at the salad bar consumed 63 percent more fruits and vegetables during lunch compared to students who chose the hot meal lunch option.
Napa Valley Unified School District: Napa Valley USD believes that kids who are eating healthy foods and feeling full are more focused and ready to learn. And, in the heart of Napa Valley, using fresh and local ingredients is always a priority.
The district was able to bring its food vision to reality thanks to an active parent group and voter support of Measure H, which funded a wide variety of facility needs including a new centralized kitchen and renovated school site kitchens. This enabled the district to start scratch cooking meals and hire its first food service director in 2017.
Since then, NVUSD has increased school meal participation, sourced higher quality local products and developed collaborations between cafeterias and school gardens.
“These partnerships are a win-win for everyone.”
— Kristen Tekell, Director of Food Services, NVUSD
“The greatest accomplishment for a farm-to-school program is to teach kids where food comes from,” said Kristen Tekell, director of Food Services at NVUSD. “Having students get hands-on experience of working in the garden teaches a variety of skills and lessons. It also increases exposure to fruits and vegetables that they may have never tried before. All of this results in building healthy lifestyle habits that help students be successful.”
The district was also able to launch a “breakfast after the bell” service, which offers students the opportunity to grab breakfast during the first couple school periods.
Next year, the district will start bringing breakfast into the classrooms of all NVUSD elementary schools, helping to combat food insecurity while also making sure students are ready to learn.
“This breakfast in the classroom model has proven to decrease absenteeism, trips to the nurse’s office and improve classroom behavior,” said district spokesperson Stacy Rollo. “It is also a good opportunity to build community and provide teachers the chance for a social wellness check-in with students.”
Tekell said the food service department is constantly looking for partnerships that will increase their local food offerings. For instance, the district will soon feature hot dogs made with local beef from farmers who practice regenerative farming.
“These partnerships are a win-win for everyone,” she said. “The students get to enjoy high-quality ingredients and know where their food comes from. The current generation of students care about what they eat and have strong feelings about sustainability and climate change. We can support their passions and beliefs by purchasing local.”
Other districts considering scratch cooking can follow these tips from NVUSD:
  • Start small. Don’t be intimidated by thinking you have to make everything from scratch. Scratch cooking can be as simple as making your own ranch dressing rather than purchasing a premade dressing.
  • Talk to the students to see what they want on the menu and go from there.
  • Reach out to other food service directors or organizations like the Chef Ann Foundation. This organization supports scratch cooking. There are lots of recipes available and lessons learned from others making the change.
Visit NVUSD’s Food Service/NOSH website at
NVUSD’s sweet and sour chicken.
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