Putting the WOW in school lunches
Sept./Oct. 2009 California Country magazine
By Barbara Arciero
A Southern California Farm to School program connects children with the farm, teaches about the environment and encourages healthy eating habits.
"WOW!" In the Riverside Unified School District, this simple, three-letter word describes a concept, defines an attitude and drives a community.
Fresh-picked produce is the cornerstone of Rodney Taylor’s successful Farm to School program, aimed at helping students in the Riverside Unified School District develop healthy eating habits. Bob Knight, right, and two other local farmers deliver their harvests to the district’s central kitchen twice a week to ensure the children get the highest quality fruits and vegetables available.
And it's all about helping schoolchildren develop healthy eating habits to last a lifetime.
Rodney Taylor is at the center of the WOW—the "head WOWser," to borrow a term from his colleagues. While his official title is director of nutrition services, Taylor is better known as the man who is revolutionizing a change in school lunches in a district that serves 43,000 students, well over half of which are from at-risk families.
"That guy is an innovator and an inspiration. Rodney Taylor is what's special about the program," is the way citrus grower and participant Bob Knight puts it.
The program Knight refers to is called Farm to School, which links local farmers to schools—and strengthens both in the process. Thanks to the National Farm to School Network, students in more than 2,000 school districts in 40 states are eating farm-fresh food for school lunch or breakfast. At the same time, local farms are getting a needed economic boost.
Rodney Taylor enjoys a lunchtime chat with students at Washington Elementary School in Riverside.
Farm to School programs are based on the premise that students will choose healthier foods—including more fruits and vegetables—if products are fresh, locally grown and picked at the peak of their flavor, and if those choices are reinforced with educational activities.
Taylor's Farm to School program is considered a national model in meeting those ambitious goals.
"We're trying to redefine what a school lunch is all about," he said. "We're doing it based on positive messages and role models, coupled with farm-fresh food."
A collaborative atmosphere, entrepreneurial vibe and can-do campaign theme—"WOW! Come let us show you WOW"—inspire the 357 people in Taylor's Nutrition Services Department who help bring a bit of the country to the cafeteria.
"'WOW' is just the work that we do every day," Taylor said. "Our goal is quite simply to wow you in every way possible."
One of the most "wow-inspiring" aspects of Taylor's Farm to School program is the daily farmers market salad bar offered as an alternative to the hot lunch meal in 26 of the district's 31 elementary schools. (Three more schools are scheduled to come online this fall; the remaining two aren't set up to accommodate a salad bar.)
At the middle schools and high schools, the Farm to School program provides a variety of high-quality, from-scratch options developed by the district's executive chef, Ryan Douglas. Students of all ages also benefit from nutrition-education activities, taste tests, garden-based learning, farmers' classroom visits and field trips to farms and farmers markets.
Julian Rybak begins loading up his lunch tray with a colorful variety of produce grown on nearby farms. Students are encouraged to go back for seconds, giving them a chance to fill up on healthy foods.
"We want to reconnect the children with the farm, to teach them about the environment as well as encourage them to eat healthy so that they develop lifelong healthy eating habits," Taylor said.
While it's clearly too early to determine the lifelong implications of the program—the farmers market salad bar, for instance, was launched less than five years ago—the kids are eating it up.
"I really like the salad bar," a grinning 6-year-old Julian Rybak told Taylor as the administrator stopped by the bustling cafeteria at Washington Elementary School in Riverside. Just a few moments earlier, the kindergartner had bypassed the line for pizza and loaded his tray with a rainbow assortment of produce.
Julian munched on cucumber, broccoli, carrots, oranges and kiwifruit from nearby farms, while Taylor complimented him on how beautiful his plate looked. Rounding out his meal were a carton of milk, a roll, dried cherries, yogurt and a packet of graham crackers. At each school, a salad bar monitor is on hand to help students make nutritionally balanced choices among five categories: bread, milk, protein, fruits and vegetables.
Sixth-grader Karissa Vick says she has not only discovered new foods through the farmers market salad bar—most notably kiwifruit—but she has also developed a completely new attitude about what a school lunch can be.
"I didn't eat lunch much before because I thought cafeteria food was pretty gross," the 12-year-old said with a laugh. "When the salad bar first opened, I was the first one to get in line because I wanted to see if it was good or not."
The young softball player says eating from the salad bar has enhanced her energy level. And because she's learning to make better food choices at school, she finds she's also making better food choices at home.
Farmer Doug Powell does more for the Farm to School program than grow food. He also visits the classroom, teaching students how their food is grown. Students from left are Micheal Sanchez, Alyssa Leyva, Rebecca Uribe and Erick Emmert.
"It makes a difference at how I look at food because I like junk food. I mean, what kid doesn't?" Karissa said. "Sometimes I want to eat healthy and other times I want to eat something else. I just feel more educated now about making those choices."
That's music to farmer Doug Powell's ears.
"Let's face it, what we eat is what we are. The whole idea of the program is getting kids to eat correctly and offering them something that's really healthy," said Powell, a small family farmer in nearby Redlands who grows fruits and vegetables for restaurants, farmers markets and the Riverside Unified School District.
Powell is one of three local farmers who supply the bulk of the fresh produce featured on the school district's salad bars; the other two are Crestmore Farms of Bloomington and Inland Orange Conservancy, Bob Knight's Redlands-based cooperative. Each farmer makes twice-weekly deliveries to the district's central kitchen, where the food is cleaned and cut into kid-size pieces before being trucked to the schools.
"It's just really important that the kids learn about what they're eating and the importance of it and where it comes from," Powell said.
Over at Highland Elementary School in Riverside, Caryn Virgin's third-grade classroom buzzes with excitement as Powell conducts a farmer's version of show and tell.
One by one, he pulls items out of a cardboard box—a butternut squash, a limb from a donut peach tree, a tomato plant, even a pile of wriggling earthworms.
"What is this?" Powell asks as he holds up a garlic plant with leaves and roots still attached. Hands shoot up, and the discussion begins about how garlic tastes and what it is used for. Someone mentions its ability to ward off vampires. Giggles erupt. Then eyes flash with understanding as the conversation shifts to a more science-based topic.
"See the roots here? The roots bring up moisture from the water and nutrients from the soil. That's how it grows," Powell explained, exhibiting a childlike sense of wonderment despite nearly 30 years in farming. "And the leaves are like solar panels. They take energy from the sun and then transfer it down to the garlic. So this little plant is going back and forth all the time. That's how it works."
Farmer Doug Powell’s classroom presentation prompts questions from David Perez and Selena Hernandez.
Powell makes classroom visits once or twice a year. He has also hosted a couple of field trips at his farm.
On this day, he works the classroom with Adleit Asi. The registered dietitian, who serves as the district's nutrition specialist, challenges the students to name some of the health benefits of the fruits and vegetables. Later, the team distributes juicy orange slices to an appreciative audience—but not before 9-year-old Jose Martinez has a chance to pose his question to Powell.
"Is farming a good career?" the boy asks.
"Yes, it is. It's a good career," Powell answers without hesitation. "I encourage anyone to start out small. That's how I did it. Just a little garden in the backyard or even a tomato plant on the patio. And if you grow up and want to do it full-time, the world needs more farmers."
Rodney Taylor would agree.
Once crowded with citrus groves and apple orchards, the rich agricultural land in Riverside County where Taylor lives and works is quickly being lost to urban development. This fact makes it particularly important to him that his Farm to School program remain as locally focused as possible.
"We buy from small farmers. We want to infuse the local economy, support the small farmers," Taylor said. "The district spends about a quarter of a million dollars per year in food purchases from local farms."
Taylor came to the Riverside Unified School District in 2002 after nearly a decade as food service director for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. While there he implemented one of the nation's first Farm to School programs. Not surprisingly, the farmers market salad bar he launched in 1997 became the cornerstone of the program.
"After 9 1/2 years in Santa Monica, the salad bar was a huge success, but I still kept hearing why it couldn't be done," Taylor recalled. "People said, 'Well, that's an affluent school district. Look at the support you had.' But I'm one that likes taking on challenges. I did my homework and thought it would be an even greater challenge to bring about the salad bar program in Riverside."
Riverside's Nutrition Services Department at the time was struggling—financially and otherwise.
"I've always wanted to buck the status quo, do things a little differently," said Taylor.
The hiring of this former corporate executive brought a private industry mentality into the public sector. It also brought healthy food to the students and a healthy glow to the department's bottom line.
Rodney Taylor’s Farm to School program is considered a national model in helping students develop healthy eating habits.
"We've been successful in bringing about a change in perception about school food service to the point where we've been able to grow the program at $1 million a year," he said. "Our revenue was $8 million a year when I took this job. Last year we took in $16 million in revenue."
Another telling statistic: The lunch participation rate has increased from 47 percent when the Farm to School program was introduced to a current 65 percent. And Taylor is quick to add that an average of 33 percent of the elementary students are choosing a farmers market salad bar lunch, "so that means one-third of the kids in our elementary schools are eating healthier each day."
A smile of pure contentment rests on his face.
"I've been fortunate enough to have found a job where I have passion in the work that I do. It gives my life meaning and purpose," Taylor said. "I get to touch the lives of my employees. And I get to make a difference in the lives of 43,000 children.
"We like to say in Nutrition Services that we serve more than food. We serve love."
There's just one response for that: WOW!
Why Farm to School?
- One-third of U.S. children are obese and overweight.
- The typical food item in the United States travels 1,500 to 2,400 miles from farm to plate.
- The United States has more prisoners than farmers.
Advocates say there is a solution that can help turn around these trends: the Farm to School program.
For more information, visit www.farmtoschool.org or www.onetray.org.
Barbara Arciero is the managing editor for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.