When Cathy Olsen started her role as nutrition services director for the school district in Winters, California, in 2006, she found salad bars collecting dust in storage and students picking at lunch options that came mostly from cans. Olsen, a former chef who grew up on a small farm with an abiding passion for locally grown produce, wouldn’t stand for it. “The carrot that came out of the ground yesterday tastes better than something that’s been sitting in storage for a while,” she says.
Olsen ramped up the purchase of fresh fruit and vegetables from nearby farms, first with the help of a grant and, when that expired, she started a nonprofit. She currently spends $80,000 every year buying vegetables, fruits, and nuts, up from around $1,000 spent on fresh produce before her arrival.
Roughly 65 percent of the produce she serves is harvested from local farms. Kids eat a lot of strawberries when they’re in season. Same goes for asparagus, carrots, and, come August, when school starts up again, Olsen’s kitchen staff will spend hours slicing melons.
The 2022-23 California state budget includes $60 million for farm to school grants, a significant jump from $8.5 million just two years ago.
Olsen is what Lena Brook, director of food campaigns at the Natural Resources Defense Council, calls an “early adopter” of farm to school (F2S) practices. In other words, 16 years ago, even before F2S grew in popularity, Olsen was among a dedicated crew of school food service directors chasing public and private dollars to start and maintain F2S programs.
Now, Brook believes another big wave of F2S adopters is coming in California, thanks to a large investment headed for the state’s school kitchens. “There’s this really comprehensive suite of investments,” she says, adding that she hopes that money “will really shift” a wider swath of the school food system toward healthier, more locally sourced meals.
The money Brook is referring to is included in the 2022-23 state budget Governor Gavin Newsom signed in June. It includes $60 million for F2S grants, a significant jump from $8.5 million just two years ago. (California far outpaces the federal F2S grant program, which doled out $12 million in 2021.)
California’s so-called “incubator grants” can be used in a variety of ways—school gardens, the purchase of locally grown produce, or educational activities. And the awards can range in total from $20,000 to $250,000, depending on the size of the district and proposed plans. Brook says these grants are what lure districts into F2S. This past spring and summer, with about $26 million available for grants, 264 applicants requested $58 million in funding. “That shows there’s huge demand,” says Brook.
The pandemic put incredible pressure on school kitchens, forcing them to package food for pick up and get creative with ingredients when supply chains bottlenecked. Also, many districts were serving meals to a growing number of families in need. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently extended its pandemic school meal waiver, which has helped school kitchens adjust to those challenges, and Dominic Machi, director of food and nutrition services at Mt. Diablo Unified School District, about 50 miles away from Winters, believes these last two years have created an opportunity for districts to see the benefit of procuring food locally. “Because of supply chain issues, this is driving directors to produce more food in-house, so they have the food ready to feed their students,” he says.
While Brook anticipates that California’s significant funding will successfully encourage the next wave of F2S adopters, she’s still hesitant to declare it a sure victory. Without permanent funding for these projects, she worries that once the grants dry up, districts will give up, as not all nutrition service directors have the capacity to launch nonprofits, like Olsen, in order to maintain F2S programs. “What I don’t want to happen is for farmers and districts to get excited to make changes to begin to form these important new relationships and supply chains and have it fizzle out once the money stops,” she says.
It’s not unusual for districts to give F2S activities a go, only to let the program fade. One recent study analyzing F2S census data found about 26 percent of participants eventually ended the program.
The F2S movement has grown tremendously nationwide over the last several decades. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which was championed by former First Lady Michelle Obama, created a grant program to increase more farm to school activities. According to the USDA’s most recent farm to school census from 2019, about 43 million children participate in F2S every year, and nearly 68,000 schools feature local foods on their menu.
California produces over a third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts, so it has some inherent advantages. Even without an official F2S program, all California districts likely serve at least some fruit and vegetables grown within the Golden State, and provided by the Department of Defense Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. 103 districts participate in a program known as California Thursdays, a partnership between public schools and the Center for Ecoliteracy that serves healthy meals made with California-grown food once a week.
But in 2020, First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom took the lead on expanding F2S. She helped form a working group and advisory committee that spent more than a year determining how to improve and grow the program in California, as well as address known barriers that limit a school’s ability to procure and serve fresh food.
According to a recent State of School Lunch report by the advocacy group Friends of the Earth, California school districts spend more than $1.5 billion dollars a year to provide 540 million school meals to nearly four million students, much of the food coming from industrial meat and dairy operations. The report notes that school meals have the potential to act as “a critical intervention to address racial and socio-economic health disparities among children who lack access to health food at home.” Half of the $60 million in F2S grant funding is reserved for Title I schools.
“School food is so complicated. It’s so heavily regulated, and it’s not well funded, and then you face everything that everyone in the food industry is facing [related to the pandemic]—staffing shortages, supply chains, a lot of turnover, and it can be hard to maintain awesome staff.”
The efforts of the working group culminated in an ambitious plan released earlier this year. It not only urges more locally grown food in school meals, but encourages school districts to buy from organic, sustainable operations as well as small, BIPOC-owned farms to create a more climate friendly, equitable school food system.
Feeding kids is not easy, though. “School food is so complicated. Few people understand all the intricacies. It’s so heavily regulated, and it’s not well funded,” says Alex Emmott, culinary manager in the student nutrition services department at San Francisco Unified School District. “And then you face everything that everyone in the food industry is facing [related to the pandemic]—staffing shortages, supply chains, a lot of turnover, and it can be hard to maintain awesome staff.”
Emmott says some food service directors simply aren’t equipped to incorporate freshly grown produce into their meal programs. “Take for example winter squash. A lot of times you can get cheap winter squash,” she explains. “But most of my kitchens don’t have the staff trained to break down winter squash and it’s pretty hard. You’ll get blisters on your hands from doing a couple of cases.”
Realizing that F2S might stall without adequate support, Governor Newsom budgeted $600 million for school kitchen upgrades to address those challenges, as well as new training programs for kitchen staff. Also included in California’s budget: $3 million that will create 16 regional positions dedicated to matching growers with schools and providing technical assistance with F2S implementation.
In Winters, Olsen has spent years developing relationships with local farmers who are willing to drop off boxes of apricots or plums and crates of zucchini at the district’s central kitchen, and she’s fortunate that she serves a modest 1,400 meals per day at just six schools. Mt. Diablo’s Machi must produce meals for 53 schools.
The F2S program he has been running since 2017 requires much more coordination. “There’s not one farm that can support the 20,000 meals a day that we do. We [work with] multiple farms,” says Machi, adding that the logistics of that can be daunting for food service directors of large districts. “What you need is a middleman, like an aggregator.”
He recently found a produce distributor that acts as his “food hub.” The distributor works closely with a range of local growers to fill the produce needs of Machi’s schools, and the distributor can even help clean, chop, and bag the food, if need be. Food hubs have been around awhile in California but some, like the Spork Food Hub in Sacramento, have formed specifically to work with schools.
Jacob Weiss, Spork’s general manager, says linking farmers to schools comes with multiple challenges. “Kids are the pickiest customer base,” he says. “If a mandarin is a little green, a kid might not want to take it.”
Last year, California passed a Farm to Community Food Hub Bill with the goal of supporting and creating more food hubs that can act as intermediaries, connecting growers to institutions serving meals, such as hospitals or schools. A study analyzing participation in farm to school programs found that when a food hub is present in the county, the likelihood that a school will maintain a farm to school program increased by 3.4 percent.
On a recent June day, Olsen watched as kids dug tongs into leafy greens and shredded carrots, making small heaps of salad alongside pizza and local apricots. “They’re doing well with salad today,” she said, nodding approvingly. Tomorrow, she’ll serve shredded raw zucchini mixed with cherry tomatoes and sliced cucumber. “They love it,” she says, in a high-pitched tone meant to convince the doubtful.
A successful F2S program involves a lot of trial and error. Cooking with fennel, Olsen says, was a disaster. Over time, she’s learned how to encourage adventurous eating. She passes out stickers to elementary-aged kids who clean plates, and there’s a “hall of fame” wall for the young and the willing who eat asparagus.
Debbie Friedman, founder of Food Climate Strategies and former program director at Conscious Kitchen, says as farm to school expands in California, it’s important to analyze what’s working and what’s not. Friedman is part of a large team of researchers that is conducting a multi-year evaluation of California’s F2S incubator grant program. They want to better understand the environmental and economic impacts of F2S, as well as why some food service directors struggle with the program.
“It is definitely a goal of ours with the research to uncover barriers, to understand them, to identify enabling conditions and then create a suite of recommendations,” says Friedman, “so that we’re not reliant on an individual who, when they leave, the whole program just goes away.”
Though rigorous research on long-term impacts of F2S is limited, some research shows that the longer programming lasts, the greater the vegetable and fruit consumption among students. Olsen, who was thinking about retiring back in 2006 before she took the Winters job, worries that when she finally does step down, the program could vanish. “It falls a lot on a person like me,” she says.
The moment school ended for the year, Olsen was busy planning her annual fundraiser—an outdoor “summer feast” on a historic, tree-lined ranch. Last year, Olsen was one of the state’s roughly 60 F2S grantees who were awarded money. Her total: $20,000, about a quarter of what it costs her to purchase fresh food and maintain the elementary school’s garden. “The lumber to rebuild the beds cost $3,500 alone,” she says as she stands near a cluster of leaning tomato plants.
That fundraiser will help ensure her F2S program can endure. Brook, with NRDC, knows not every school food service director has the time or interest in fundraising. “That’s so much work for something that should be foundational,” she says.
Brook is excited that a new wave of F2S adopters is likely on the horizon thanks to millions in incubator grant funding and investment in technical assistance as well as kitchen upgrades, but she still sees many districts approach F2S like a “pilot” project, something that may or may not pan out.
With so much effort being put into expanding F2S in California, she thinks the next step should be pledging long-term support to individual programs like Cathy Olsen’s. “We’re giving farms and schools the ability to forge connections, to forge new supply chains by supporting local procurement,” she says. “In order for these goals to be realized we need a long-term funding commitment from the legislature.”
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