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San Diego School Lunchrooms Go Green

Students at Marston Middle School in Clairemont enjoy locally grown broccoli for their school lunch on Monday.
Ana Tintocalis
Students at Marston Middle School in Clairemont enjoy locally grown broccoli for their school lunch on Monday.

Farm-To-School Movement Mixes Things Up At Local Schools

San Diego School Lunchrooms Go Green
San Diego school lunchrooms are increasingly going green. In fact, the San Diego Unified School District is tapping into the ‘farm-to-table movement’ found in many restaurants today.

It’s lunch time at Marston Middle School in Clairemont.

Hundreds of hungry students grab their lunch trays and line-up at the school’s salad bar.

Today’s harvest-of-the-month is broccoli.


“This broccoli was grown special for you,” Vanessa Zajfen tells students before they eat their lunch. Zajfren is the San Diego Unified School District’s farm-to-school program specialist.

“We planted it in November over five months ago, and now it's here in your salad bar,” she adds.

Broccoli is the latest crop to end-up on school lunch trays in San Diego schools. The vegetable is also featured on pizza and baked potatoes.

The goal of the district’s farm-to-school program is to serve nutritious meals by getting local growers to harvest foods for young students.

Santa Monica and Berkeley first pioneered the farm-to-school program about 15 years ago. Now there are 2,000 programs in more than 40 states.


Zajfen says the challenge in San Diego Unified is that its kitchens have moved away from what is called scratch cooking.

She says about 15 years ago, school chefs actually prepared meals -- from fresh bread to turkey soup. Now they rely on ovens to heat up pre-packaged foods.

“Bringing in a food item that needs to be hand-processed, taking multiple hours to prepare is a new thing,” Zajfen says. “It’s going back (in time) in some sense as well as moving us forward.”

California does have stricter school lunch standards compared to other states.

San Diego Unified takes it one step further by basing its menu on SHAPE California -- a set of nutritional guidelines for schools that calls for more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

School officials say the farm-to-school program is a perfect fit. Students are beginning to take notice.

“It feels good knowing you’re not buying that frozen gross fake broccoli,” says 11-year-old like Sydney Johnson. “I can actually have real broccoli right in my cafeteria.”

But getting kids to eat farm fresh vegetables like broccoli is still a challenge.

Food services officials are getting salad bar coaches to stand in line with students, encouraging them to try new veggies.

They’re also conducting taste tests in classrooms.

Kitchen staff is even handing out farmer trading cards to students featuring the local farmer of the month.

One of those farmers is Jonathon Reinbold who runs Tierra Miguel Foundation and Farm in Pauma Valley, an 85-acre organic farm about 15 miles northeast of Escondido.

Reinbold says getting farm food onto school tables may seem like an easy thing to do, but there are significant hurdles.

Public schools are constrained by federal subsidies that limit how much they can spend on food. School districts also rely on certain distributors who may not do business with local farmers.

Reinbold says it's tough work, but it can happen.

“The fact that we got through it, and we have the next crop in the ground for next month … is a huge step,” he says. “(The vegetables) are not coming out of a bag. They are coming from a local farm only 20 miles away. I think it’s great.”

San Diego schools have been serving locally grown produce for about a year now. So far this year they’ve enjoyed locally harvested apples, tangerines and squash.

Food services officials hope to serve an entire meal of locally grown foods at least once a month.