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Farm To School Program Broadens Palates Of San Diego Students

Ron Sahu at his farm in north eastern San Diego County where he grows persimmons.
Matthew Bowler
Ron Sahu at his farm in north eastern San Diego County where he grows persimmons.
SDUSD Farm to School Program

The cheery roar of elementary school cafeterias is an unmistakable sound.

If you went to elementary school, you remember that sound. It reminds you of how much fun your goofy little friends were — and many times how horrible the food was.

But today the food can actually be good.


The San Diego Unified School District credits its Farm to School program for the improvement of its cafeteria food.

The district said they don’t start to make lunch in the cafeteria. They start making lunch on the farm.

Ron Sahu is an organic persimmon farmer in north eastern San Diego County. He grew about 10,000 pounds of persimmons. San Diego Unified bought them all. The district introduces one new food a month through its Farm to School program. It then serves that food once a week on Wednesdays. November was persimmons.

“Persimmons are an interesting fruit,” Sahu said. “They kind of look like apples, at some level. But they are not. They are actually a fruit from Asia."

The school district doesn’t just plop a new food, like persimmons, in front of students and expect them to eat it. First, the children learn about the food in the classroom.


In Lori Huntsman's fourth grade class at Normal Heights Elementary School, the 9 and 10 year olds huddle together to watch a video about the fruit. They learn about the farmer, where the farm is and where the fruit came from.

Every single one of San Diego County’s 42 school districts has some kind of farm to school program, but San Diego Unified is the only district to have a full time farm to school specialist - and the district has two.

Kathryn Spencer, one of San Diego Unified's farm to school specialists, is pictured.
Matthew Bowler
Kathryn Spencer, one of San Diego Unified's farm to school specialists, is pictured.

Kathryn Spencer is one of them. She spends every day hunting for San Diego County’s best organic produce.

“I think this is a really big opportunity that we have as people who are committed to childhood health, and getting them to try new things,” Spencer said.

The district feeds more than 100,000 students and 15 percent of their produce is grown locally. They would like that number to be 100 percent, but it’s just not possible.

“You know, we buy so much produce that we would clean out farms completely," Spencer said.

The district created a tiered system to encourage local produce buying.

Tier one is San Diego County grown. Spencer said if they can buy produce in San Diego County they will.

Tier two is regionally grown. That means within a 250-mile radius of the district’s distribution center.

And last, tier three - California grown. Spencer said they try hard not to spend money outside the state.

Spencer said if more districts bought their produce locally it would become easier for all the districts to buy local.

“Food service operations and food service directors are talking to their produce distribution companies and they're saying ‘Hey, I want local,' and so it really is this transformation overall of what a consumer wants," Spencer said. "And the more people who demand local, in terms of the purchasers within school districts, the easier it's going to be to start getting it.”

Farmers like Sahu are for that. He said locally grown food benefits everyone.

“It doesn’t have to be harvested and picked long before it's eaten. That preserves their freshness. It doesn’t have to be transported a great distance in big trucks, refrigerated trucks, creating their own problems of traffic and pollution,” Sahu said.

Normal Heights Elementary School students eat lunch.
Matthew Bowler
Normal Heights Elementary School students eat lunch.

The fourth graders spent lunch talking about how much they love the new fruit. They don't seem to be interested in the environmental impact of the food they're served. But they do like the persimmons.

Raneli Daug put it simply when he said, “they taste so good!”

David Hermoso said, “Persimmons are better than mangoes.”

Ruby Diaz could hardly contain her excitement. “When I eat persimmons it's really sweet. And when I first tried it, I was like, wow!”

Farm-to-school specialist Spencer said the whole district hopes that after students graduate, they have a greater appreciation for food and a more open mind.

“I really hope that they’ve tried a lot of different things that we’ve shown them,” Spencer said. “You know, our salad bars are a really great vehicle for students to be introduced to new types of fruits and vegetables that they might not see at home.”

Spencer hopes the farm to school program is broadening minds, one persimmon at a time.