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Leadership and Innovation Awards

Attendees inspired by awardees to implement new skills and ideas

Leadership and Innovation Awards

The California Food for California Kids Leadership and Innovation Awards recognize leaders whose creativity and dedication inspire school communities across the state.

Launched in 2013, the California Food for California Kids Leadership and Innovation Awards honor the commitment, vision, and entrepreneurial spirit of leaders in California public school communities. Past winners have included educators, food service directors, nonprofits, multi-sector partnerships, and the first USDA Certified Organic school garden in the country.

The awards recognize the richness and creativity of California’s Farm to School achievements. Fresh, locally-grown food, inspired nutrition and ecological education, thriving school gardens, and committed partnerships throughout diverse communities bring to life California Food for California Kids’ vision of eating, learning, and growing.

In 2019, the Center for Ecoliteracy honored outstanding leaders and innovations in the school food system:

Leadership Award for Innovating Farm to School Culture

Gary Petill, Nutrition Services Director
Fred Espinosa, Manager of Acquisitions and Production

The second largest district in the state, San Diego Unified has taken a whole-systems design approach to improving school meals. Procurement, food waste, deeper investment in staff, and connecting school garden crops with the cafeteria are just some of the ways their efforts are truly embodying their motto "Healthy Food, Successful Students." San Diego Unified is sourcing 90% of their produce from California, rescued more than 437,000 pounds of food waste in the last three years, and carving an important pathway to improving school meals and the planet.

Farm Lab and the DREAMS Campus

Mim Michelove, Founding Director of Farm Lab
Julie Burton, Coordinator of Innovation and Farm Lab Development
Lea Bonelli, MS, RDN, Child Nutrition Director

Through the creation of Farm Lab's DREAMS (Design, Research, Engineering, Art, Math, and Science) Campus, a 10-acre farm where kids are able to learn outside of the classroom in an immersive setting, and in partnership with The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano, the Encinitas Union School District brings an innovative model demonstrating the power of collaboration. Through place-based learning, design thinking, and research, children discover the impact of food on their health and the environment. With 50% of the land being farmed to provide fresh produce for the school lunch program at all nine schools in the district, they can also boast of having become the first USDA Certified Organic school district in the country. They currently grow 20,275 pounds of produce annually for their school meals.

Student Culinary Training

Ed Burke, RD, Director of Food Services

As Director of Food Services, Ed Burke has been a one-of-a-kind innovator for Calistoga Joint Unified School District's student culinary training efforts. He is committed to California-grown ingredients, farm-to-table education through careful sourcing, and stresses the importance of career technical education for high schoolers — many of whom struggle academically, but excel in Ed's kitchen. By building a strong culinary skills training program at the high school level, he demonstrated the benefit of supporting students' lifelong knowledge of cooking and career readiness for food-related jobs. Not to mention the lasting life skills gained by caring for others through cooking and food.

Fresh and Sustainable Kitchens

Brandy Dreibelbis, Director of Nutrition Services

Brandy Dreibelbis has been instrumental in helping Napa Valley Unified launch a self-operating food service program, open a new central kitchen, and complete the first of 15 planned finishing kitchens throughout the district. The newly branded NOSH – Napa’s Operative for School Food Health — is the first self-operating food service program at Napa Valley Unified in over 32 years. This transition away from an outside food service vendor is the key to healthier and more sustainable solutions for nourishing students in their district. With investments in equipment to enable more scratch cooking, bulk organic milk machines, and a clean label initiative, the results have had an immediate impact: less waste, better procurement standards, and cost savings that can be put directly back into even more delicious, healthy, and local meals served well into the future. Innovation at its best.


Foothills Fresh Program with Sierra Harvest

Brett McFadden, Superintendent, Nevada Joint Union High School District
Monica Daugherty, Superintendent, Nevada City School District
Aimee Retzler, Co-Director of Sierra Harvest, a Nevada-based nonprofit

When two school districts and a local non-profit joined forces and created an unprecedented regional school food model, people noticed. Their innovative efforts to create change through collective action resulted in Foothills Fresh, a program that has been called a triple win between farmers, kids, and the schools. It utilizes the facilities and talent at Nevada Joint Union High School District to freshly prepare meals for delivery to smaller districts in Nevada County, including Nevada City School District. Supported by stakeholders at every level — administration, parents and school board, students, food service staff — the joint program has twice the number of kids eating the food at school, the schools are buying more California grown foods, and there are new hands-on learning opportunities through farm and culinary education programs. 

Riverside Food Hub

Adleit Asi, Director, Nutrition Services
Scott Berndt, Specialty Crop Food Hub Coordinator

The Riverside Food Hub is the first produce aggregation and distribution program ever to be run by a school district. Pioneered by Scott Berndt in close partnership with Riverside Unified School District, this multi-sector partnership between public health, school districts, the City, and local institutions is as unique as it is innovative. Leveraging existing resources like the Riverside Unified nutrition services warehouse, cold storage, and delivery trucks, the hub provides important promotion and distribution for a network of local farmers, and provides consumer education that makes the case for purchasing locally-grown foods. Their programming has been awarded grant funds, supports a Farmer Training program, and helps the district continue buying 60% of Riverside-grown produce for its schools. School kids proudly proclaim their meals are, “grown where I grow!”

Set aside your ego and ask for help when you need it. It takes partnerships to get this work done.
Rodney Taylor


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