Serving Food and Serving Communities

Written by: Brianna Egan, FoodCorps Service Member with Pajaro Valley Unified School District

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Students from the Jóvenes SANOS youth group voiced their perspectives on the lunchrooms at Watsonville High and E.A. Hall Middle School as part of a design-thinking activity I facilitated with them. The current cafeterias are “old school” and “institutionalized”. They’d love to see more Mexican food, a salad bar, and even a fresh juice bar.

The fall season brings with it a time of reflection—a time to gather the final harvests of summer and to lay down plans, like cover crops, for the coming year. This fall, in my second month of service through FoodCorps at Pajaro Valley Unified School District, I am reflecting on my whirlwind introduction to school food and laying down plans on how I will work to connect kids with healthy food this year.

Every morning on my commute to the school district’s offices in Watsonville, California I pass by acres and acres of farmland. I turn my head to make out the fruits on the rows and I see farmworkers, bent over, tending to the fields. Raspberries, strawberries, lettuce greens, hoodies, denim…they blur into shades of deep green and dust brown. I cannot wrest away the thought that the growing of our food is intimately connected to people, to families, and to communities.

On the afternoons when I visit E.A. Hall Middle School during lunch service I see eager faces pressing through the service line. Children grab corn tamales, boxes of raisins, and packets of baby carrots. Last year, Food & Nutrition Services at PVUSD served 3.95 million meals counting breakfast, snack, and lunch—ultimately reaching 91.4% of all students in the district. This year, E.A. Hall, along with 17 other schools in our district, offers universal free breakfast and lunch through USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision. All students automatically receive school meals for free, without needing to apply. This reduces the stigma of qualifying for free lunch, and means parents won’t need to take the time out of their day to come to the office and fill out paperwork.

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One day after school I meet with a Watsonville youth group called Jóvenes SANOS that works on community health initiatives. I present to them one of the larger projects I am working on this year: We are redesigning the cafeterias at a middle school and high school as part of the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, with grant support from the California Department of Education. We are hoping to make the design process student-centered and community-driven, to ultimately create welcoming spaces where students can relax and enjoy a healthy, fresh meal.

The discussion with these students becomes animated as they point out a need for better seating, more culturally-relevant menu items, and maybe speakers and a D.J. setup? Ironic, we discuss, that in what is often referred to as the “salad bowl” of California, our schools do not yet have salad bars. The team at Food & Nutrition Services desperately wants to start salad bars, but there are challenges to address first—namely, a lack of refrigeration space in our kitchens.

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I remind myself that this year will be all about starting small, staying consistent, and moving the needle forward. Food & Nutrition Services at PVUSD is a first-time FoodCorps service site (though other service members have served at schools in Watsonville with Life Lab, Food What?!, and CAFF as partners). As the first FoodCorps member to serve at this site, I am consciously thinking about the community I am serving and how best to define the role and responsibilities of this position for this year and the years to come.

I am bolstered with hope by the success stories of other school districts, with models that serve school garden produce in salad bars or employ high schoolers at school district farms. This world of school food and introducing kids to real, wholesome food, is one that is generous, resourceful and ever-persistent. I am grateful for this chance to lay the groundwork for a school food program that doesn’t just serve food, but that also serves the community.

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FoodCorps Service Member Brianna Egan

Brianna is a recent graduate from UC San Diego where she studied Human Biology and Global Health. A lifetime resident of Southern California, she is excited to spend the year up North as a FoodCorps service member at Food & Nutrition Services at Pajaro Valley Unified. She is an advocate for building healthy communities—whether that means sharing meals and conversations with the homeless, working with compost on sustainable farms, or teaching nutrition to students. She firmly believes in the power of community effort to enact change. In the future, Brianna hopes to attend medical school and serve her community as a physician practicing evidence-based preventative medicine. You can connect with her on Twitter (@briannajegan) or email her at brianna.egan@foodcorps.org.

 

About Food & Nutrition Services at PVUSD:

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The Food & Nutrition Services department at PVUSD in Watsonville, California is made up of a team of food and nutrition professionals that are dedicated to students’ health, well-being, and their ability to learn. We support learning by promoting healthy habits for lifelong nutrition practices.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are offered at every meal and only whole grains—not refined grains—are served. Meals, foods and beverages sold or served at schools meet state and federal requirements which are based on the USDA Dietary Guidelines. With programs like Free & Universal Meals, Breakfast in the Classroom, Smarter Lunchrooms, and Farm-to-School, we work to provide access to healthy, nutritious, and affordable or free meals to all students at Pajaro Valley Unified. Learn more about our program by visiting: http://www.pvusd.net/FoodServices

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