Building Partnerships: Training Child Nutrition Directors on School Gardens, Local Produce, and Student Engagement

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The Office of Farm to Fork held its third and final Child Nutrition Director Training at Encinitas Unified School District last month. The training, hosted by Lea Bonelli, Director of Nutrition Services, shed light on techniques to incorporate more fresh local produce, including fast-scratch recipes, discussed working with school gardens, and shared strategies on creating student buy-in.

Bonelli focused the day on how she has trained staff to work with fresh produce, largely from the Farm Lab, a district run farm and student educational center. Purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables can be a daunting task for school districts. Items often require processing prior to serving, which presents a challenge for busy food service staff with often limited skillsets and time. Giving staff the correct skillset and protocols allows them to quickly, confidently, and safely prepare student meals.

During the training, attendees visited the district’s central kitchen and saw firsthand how staff prepare fresh student meals, including Farm Lab romaine for the salad bar and pizza made with sauce from last season’s tomatoes. During the summer months, Encinitas staff freeze large portions of fresh vegetables to be used throughout the school year. Staff also demonstrated techniques for preparing fast-scratch meals using commodity products, like corn and beef. Attendees were then served a typical student lunch that featured Farm Lab romaine, local kiwis, and pizza made with fresh dough.

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The day wrapped up with a visit to the Farm Lab for a chance to see the fields where the romaine was grown. Director Min Michelove welcomed the group and discussed how she and Bonelli have worked together to make the farm an integral part of Encinitas student meals and education.
“When you give students the opportunity to get their hands in the dirt, learn about the growing process and watch as the produce grows, they are much more likely to try these vegetables on the salad bar that they may typically not choose. Students are more invested in the food they are eating and I think this helps cultivate long term healthy eating habits,” remarked Bonelli.

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Learning from peers is key to advancing farm to school programs. A roadblock to one district, can be fixed with an applicable solution by another. Giving food service directors the opportunity to expand their knowledge base and network with other directors has long-term benefits for farm to school programs and students. CDFA was happy to coordinate these trainings and aid in improving farm to school communication throughout California.