Farm Fresh

Most of the fresh produce Greenfield Unified School District kitchen workers use in meal prep comprises local and seasonal fruit and vegetables.

For months, Monterey County’s Blue Zones Project, a county-wide initiative that seeks to improve the health and well-being of residents, has been working hand-in-hand with local school districts to increase the amount of fresh, local produce used to prep school lunches.

The quest started when 30 people, including school administrators, growers and public health professionals, gathered for a food policy summit when Blue Zones came to the region in 2019. That meeting highlighted the need to provide higher-quality food at school, and connect school districts with local growers right here in the Salad Bowl of the World, says Genevieve LeBlanc, food policy lead at Blue Zones.

It motivated directors of nutrition at different school districts to partner with local growers or food aggregators.

In Castroville, Sarah Doherty, director of nutrition services and wellness at North Monterey County Unified School District, partnered with Coke Farms, a food hub in San Juan Bautista that represents over 70 organic growers. In South County, Christophe Haefele, food services manager at Greenfield Union School District, partnered with Edgar Juarez, a Salinas-based grower.

Haefele made it his mission to reduce the amount of canned and frozen food and provide more fresh food for students. “Food is medicine,” he says. And getting good nutrition is demonstrated to help students perform better in school.

Haefele says he started looking around, going to farmers markets and contacting growers to get a local supplier. He started by using Watsonville Cross Produce Inc. and then he got in touch with Edgar Juarez. Haefele started by purchasing fruits and, later, vegetables. “We buy almost 80 percent of our produce from him,” Haefele says. “[Fresh produce] is very accessible around here in California, and we live in the heart of the valley.”

More fresh produce meant a change in kitchen operations from opening cans to receiving, washing, storing, and preparing fruits and vegetables that will be used on the menu. Some of the meals they prepare include breakfast burritos in the morning, or pasta with alfredo sauce and pozole for lunch.

“[Haefele] is really focused on providing culturally relevant food to the students,” says Griselda Reyes, senior organization lead at Blue Zones.

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Reyes’ job involves talking with school administrators and getting them on board to adopt the Blue Zones Resolution – a commitment to habit changes that make the school and working environments healthier. It starts with small changes: posters in the cafeteria that motivate students to eat more fruits and vegetables, for example. “We brought [Blue Zones] to Monterey County because of the high incidence of diabetes,” Reyes says. More than half of adults in the county have either diabetes or prediabetes.

Reyes says most schools are doing pretty well in providing a healthy environment for students, so implementing the resolution won’t be a hard task.

Reyes says they also focus on school gardens and outdoor learning environments. “Teaching kids about horticulture or local agriculture and what it’s like to grow fruit or a vegetable – then try it and eat it,” Reyes says.

When Haefele joined Greenfield Union, the district kitchens were cooking from scratch once or twice a week, and most of the fruit kids ate was canned. Now, he’s shifting that balance.

“We try to cook between two to three times a week from scratch,” he says.

Every month, Haefele gets a list of produce from Juarez – about 60 percent is organic – and plans the menus based on that. The district spends up to $25,000 every week on food, preparing more than 1,500 breakfasts, 2,700 lunches and 500 dinners.

Last year, North Monterey County Unified School District obtained $97,638 in funding for its Farm to School Expansion Project. Farm to School aims to increase locally grown produce in school cafeterias and hands-on learning to expose students to nutrition and agriculture.

LeBlanc says other school districts in the county are looking at what the North Monterey County and Greenfield Union school districts are doing, and Blue Zones hopes this might convince them to purchase more local produce as well.

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