From seed to tray in Oakland: the power of Garden to Cafeteria programs

Today’s guest blogger is Oakland-based FoodCorps service member Danielle Nahal. You’ll want to read this one all the way through.

FoodCorps service member and guest author Danielle Nahal at Stonehurst Elementary in East Oakland

FoodCorps service member and guest author Danielle Nahal at Stonehurst Elementary in East Oakland

There are few places more exciting to be as a FoodCorps service member than Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). The district has made incredible strides both in their school garden programs as well as their school lunch initiatives, where the California Thursdays program has begun serving entirely California sourced, scratch-cooked meals every week across more than 80 schools.

While there are so many exciting programs at Oakland Unified that deserve attention, I want to share a story from one program that goes hand in hand with California Thursdays: the Garden to Cafeteria Pilot Program.

The Garden to Cafeteria Program is a brand-new initiative at OUSD, where vegetables grown by students in school gardens are used directly in school lunches. Launched this past Earth Week after more than a year of planning and policy making, the program featured the inclusion of both salad greens and fresh herbs into the school lunch menu. Though still new to the district, this project has had a profound effect on both my students in the way they connect food to where it comes from, and surprisingly, on me, as it provided connection in a completely different way.

How it works

The goals of this program, developed largely by Park Guthrie, our Garden-Education Specialist/Garden Council Facilitator, focus on both student engagement in school lunch and increasing students’ consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. As most people in the business of school lunch are aware, it matters little how much work you put into a meal if a child has no interest in consuming it.

This program gets kids interested and engaged by serving fresh foods that students grew and harvested themselves. Furthermore, students understand the value of the garden in a new way—as students grow and prepare food in the garden, it becomes something that is accepted by the school itself as a legitimate, powerful space that contributes something important to the community, no matter how many ounces of lettuce are actually harvested.

Launching Garden to Cafeteria – from seed to lunch tray

The story I want to tell is focused on one of the first Garden to Cafeteria experiences I had. On harvest day, I was teaching a first grade class in the garden. As always, we opened with the weather and season, observed what was happening in the class’s raised bed, and did a short lesson about how our plants grew from seeds, and what we did to help them along the way. When the time came to harvest the young lettuce and spicy arugula, the kids were excited, but also strangely focused. “Solamente las hojas verdes, no amarillas,” they cautioned one another, echoing the instructions I’d given to only pick the green leaves. We washed and weighed the leaves, yielding about 13 ounces to be mixed into the salad for the 400-student school.

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Though I had excitedly told the first graders that the arugula and lettuce we harvested was going to go in the school lunch, it didn’t really hit them until we walked into the cafeteria, where the staff was setting up for lunch. The boisterous group fell silent, their footsteps echoing in the vast space. Devoria, the cafeteria manager, came over to officially receive the produce. The students stared shyly up at her, hesitantly answering questions about how we grew the arugula. I felt like I could see them realizing that their lunch came from somewhere, that people cooked it and put it there for them to eat. And when at last a parent volunteer took our bag of leaves and took it back into the kitchen to be further washed, my students’ eyes followed it until it finally disappeared behind the swinging doors of the kitchen.

The next day was showtime! On Earth Day, I stood in the cafeteria with the kitchen staff and parent volunteers, explaining to the waiting students that the arugula in their salad came from our garden, that their fellow first graders had harvested it! With the help of a poster I had put together illustrating the process, I showed them the lettuce, arugula, and radish seeds that we had stared with, pictures of students watering, and the changes in the beds’ appearance as the plants grew.

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The students were excited to see their fellows on what seemed to be something official, and I heard many students telling each other they would definitely try the salad, since it came from the garden. When the class that had harvested the produce came in, they were beyond excited to see themselves and their work featured, and enthusiastically received the salad on the line. The class and their teacher were later awarded the acclaimed Golden Trowel to mark their success, and I circled the cafeteria many times to talk to students about their salad experience, finding many clean plates and eager voices talking about lunch.

Garden to Cafeteria connections aren’t just for kids!

Finally, the meal was over. The last tables were wiped down, the salad bar was emptied, and the metal trays were covered. My sign detailing the garden to cafeteria process was still bright and cheerful, with the baggies of seeds hanging off of their staples, wearied of the earnest hands that felt the different shapes of the seeds. At Devoria’s request, I found a bulletin board to mount the sign on, as the salad would be coming to the cafeteria in small amounts every week.

Devoria came over to see it, as did Mrs. Torres, a community member who has for years coordinated the school’s Family Resource Center, mobilizing parents and families to engage with the school, whether helping at lunch or starting a running club. She also has been highly invested in maintaining the garden alongside her husband, weathering the changes that have come in the program every year. Mrs. Torres looked fondly at the pictures of kindergarteners and first graders planting and harvesting and remarked, “I always wanted to see this, for the kids to be in the garden and learning about food.”

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Danielle with cafeteria staff at Stonehurst Elementary in East Oakland

Devoria smiled and began recounting her childhood, growing up in a farm in the South, where she and her siblings would eat fresh corn and melon all summer long, making dolls from the husks. Mrs. Torres laughed and recounted her own tale of eating sandía when she was young. And as I stood there listening to these stories, I was suddenly aware of what was happening. We three women, each from a different culture, different backgrounds and different professions, had collided, bringing our skills and passions together to foster a healthier school environment for our students. But equally importantly, this shared initiative had brought us together simply as people, and allowed ourselves to connect, to recall our fond memories of food and how we shape our values around them. The three of us soon congratulated each other and headed off our separate ways, but this moment resonated with me in a way that few had in a long time.

Challenges, opportunities, and hope

The Garden to Cafeteria pilot was far from easy to bring about, as protocols to ensure food safety were developed with input from the County of Environmental Health as well as the USDA [ed. note: this is a challenge that many schools and districts face when trying to start a Garden to Cafeteria program. Visit Life Lab’s Garden to Cafeteria resource page or Contact us for help!]. It also required intensive commitment from everyone, from garden teachers coordinating a manageable group of kids to harvest safely to cafeteria staff making adjustments in menus to accommodate the different flavors that fresh herbs provided. Nonetheless, the program continues to move forward with the goal of engaging more students in their food, and down the road, being able to produce a regular supply of garden vegetables to offset non-local procurement in school lunch.

I chose to share this story because I believe that there are times in any movement, in any service or work, when it seems that the obstacles in creating what you believe in seem insurmountable, and your faith and your passions seem misplaced. But for each of those, there are moments when you know that you’ve helped to create something positive, something that you know you can believe in. For me, this experience, from the uncertain steps of the first graders into the cafeteria kitchen to the shared stories of watermelon intersecting across cultures and professions, reminded me that there are deeper connections that are being fostered than I can see. This thought sustains my passion for my service, and my belief that the work that so many of us are doing is creating something better, one leaf at a time.

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