People and Passion Drive Riverside’s Innovative Farm to School Model
People and Passion Drive Riverside’s Innovative Farm to School Model
Video © Office of Kat Taylor
It’s early on a Monday when we get in the car and head to the Riverside Unified School District’s Central Kitchen and Riverside Food Hub. As we arrive, the place is already humming with activity at 5:30 in the morning. It’s barely light out, yet dozens of apron-clad school nutrition workers are on site to process farm-fresh onions, tomatoes, avocados, and melons for the food hub, which serves Riverside Unified School District along with six other local school districts. (Collectively, these districts serve almost 87,000 meals each day.) The facility is massive and sits in a Riverside warehouse district. There are industrial-sized food processors, immersion blenders, steam jacket kettle skillets, and chillers to process over $600,000 of local produce per year, about one-third of the school district's food budget.
At the Center for Ecoliteracy, our California Food for California Kids® initiative supports district-level operational excellence and leverages the magnitude of public school meals—over one billion served each year in California—to create positive changes in the food system through the purchasing power of school districts. The California Food for California Kids Network includes over 100 public school districts committed to serving fresh, locally-grown school meals. As a member of the Network since 2014, Riverside Unified is a leader in farm to school and we’re here to experience their innovative model in action.
The central kitchen and food hub prepares fresh food to deliver to all 30 Riverside Unified elementary schools, each with its own salad bar. The food hub is a vital part of the district’s efforts to increase the amount of fresh, locally-grown food as California’s new School Meals for All policy goes into effect. The Center for Ecoliteracy co-sponsored the policy along with the California Association of Food Banks, NextGen California, TomKat Ranch, and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, which provides state funding for all K–12 public school students to be offered free breakfast and lunch at school.
“They should have done that a long time ago because everybody has a story,” said Julie Crozier, who was busy using a food processor to dice hundreds of onions. Crozier serves as a cafeteria worker at Woodcrest Elementary after working early mornings at the food hub. “I can tell the kids that are hungry, you know. I see them on a daily basis when they come in and they're crying and they're like, ‘Yesterday was my only meal.’ It breaks my heart.”
Josh Goddard, Director of Nutrition Services, Santa Ana Unified School District; Tracey Roussel, Nutrition Specialist, Santa Ana Unified School District; Scott Berndt, Riverside Unified School District Central Kitchen and Food Hub Manager; Moises Munoz Plascencia, Farm to School Coordinator, Santa Ana Unified School District.
Leadership and Peer-to-Peer Learning
The Riverside Food Hub and Riverside Unified School District are innovators in the farm to school movement, which was evident the day we visited. Staff from Santa Ana Unified School District, also a member of the California Food for California Kids Network, joined the visit to learn how to expand their farm to school program. Walking through the food hub as staff busily prepared lunch for that day, Scott Berndt, Riverside Unified School District Central Kitchen and Food Hub Manager, explained how he sources local produce to the newest member of the Santa Ana Unified nutrition staff, Moises Munoz Plascencia. Plascencia, a former anthropology lecturer, is on day three as the new Farm to School Coordinator for the district. His colleagues are along with him: Josh Goddard, Director of Nutrition Services, and Tracey Roussel, Nutrition Specialist.
Santa Ana Unified recently opened a central kitchen for their district with funding from a $10 million bond measure. They hope to use the new facility to process fresh, local produce, but their major distributors are telling them that scratch cooking is impossible. Goddard refused to believe it. He’s excited about his new central kitchen and imagines preparing fresh meals made with local ingredients, eliminating any dependence on distributors of packaged, unseasonal food who don’t believe in their vision. A pillar of the California Food for California Kids Network is peer-to-peer learning: with minimal funding, strict nutrition guidelines, and the drive to craft appetizing meals, school nutrition directors are adept at creative problem-solving. The network provides an avenue to share resources and lessons learned.
The food hub sources produce from over 20 farmers within a 100-mile radius, most of whom use regenerative farming methods, focusing particularly on soil health and carbon sequestration practices. Even though Riverside is ranked the 14th largest agricultural producer in California, there isn’t enough local food to meet the demand of the food hub. Berndt recommends Placencia start by approaching farmers at local farmer’s markets and stopping by local farms to ask what they grow and if they’d be willing to sell to a school district to provide their produce directly to students.
Riverside Unified School District nutrition staff prepare avocados for guacamole.
Adleit Asi, Riverside Unified School District Nutrition Services Director.
Riverside Food Hub History and Funding
Riverside Unified School District’s farm to school program began over 15 years ago under Rodney Taylor’s leadership, a school nutrition legend in California. Taylor came to Riverside from Santa Monica Unified School District, where he piloted the “Farmers Market Salad Bar” concept. Once at Riverside Unified, he hired Adleit Asi as Farm to School Coordinator, and piloted a salad bar at a single school site: Thomas Jefferson Elementary. They started with a local farmer who provided them with lettuce for $10,000 per year. The partnership grew and the farmer eventually left his full-time work in construction to grow his farm, increasing his produce sales to over $80,000 a year to the district. The “Farmers Market Salad Bar” became Asi’s pride and joy and now, as Nutrition Services Director, it is her mission to make sure each elementary school has a salad bar with farm fresh ingredients. “People come from all over the world to learn about our work,” said Asi.
The Riverside Food Hub, while a dream of Taylor's from the start of his tenure at Riverside Unified, was only more recently established thanks to a USDA Farm to School Grant in 2017. Subsequent CDFA Specialty Crop Block and USDA Local Food Promotion Program grants have boosted its ability to operate and expand, but those have since expired. The food hub is at the heart of the school district's farm to school efforts, and as such, relies on in-kind donations from the school district to support its operation. Grant funding and sales to other school districts, restaurants, and customers fund a Farm to School Coordinator position and a delivery driver. A recent kitchen infrastructure grant from the California Department of Education allowed them to buy a new delivery truck.
It's a unique model. No other school district in California operates its own food hub. "We are here at the pleasure of the district," said Berndt. "As long as we don't interfere with the primary use of school operations to feed kids." The food hub uses the district warehouse, food processing equipment, storage space (including freezers, refrigeration, and dry goods), and trucks. Sales to school districts are around $500,000 a year, but the program only breaks even, according to Asi. But the return on investment is significant, with the school board in full support of the effort. "The kids get introduced to local, seasonal, and sometimes new fruits and vegetables," said Asi.
The school board isn’t the only supporter. The entire city and county of Riverside is investing in local agriculture for local consumption as an economic driver through an initiative called Grow Riverside. “Local produce has a multiplier effect,” said Asi. “Any local purchases for produce go to our local farmers who then spend their money at local businesses, multiplying our investment over six times.”
“Trucks filled with produce go from the Coachella Valley all the way to Los Angeles for processing, then they come back up here for delivery to customers,” said Berndt. “We want to create a system that will replace this waste of transportation by growing new farmers here in Riverside. Those systems pay farmers 30¢ a head for lettuce. I don’t want to be a part of that system. We return 85¢ to the farmer.”
Maricela Archer, Gage Middle School biology teacher, shows off the site that will soon become a school garden.
School Garden to Cafeteria
When our tour of the central kitchen and food hub wrapped up, we drove to Gage Middle School to witness the birth of a new school garden supported by a 2021 Farm to School Incubator Grant. The intention of the garden is to grow produce for the school cafeteria. The garden, currently managed by Maricela Archer, a biology teacher and former field biologist, is just a patch of dirt framed by a new fence. Archer tells us her students are very excited to start planting the seeds they are sowing in their classroom. “We got a greenhouse grant so we don't have to buy small plants,” said Archer. “We want to start them from seed, so the greenhouse would be an easy way for us to start them… and kind of fun for the students to be able to see that process.”
Eric Unger, owner of Gable Farms, shows off a cherry tomato served on the “Farmers Market Salad Bar.”
Tomatoes grow on Gable Farms.
Meet a Local Farmer
Next, we drove through farmland, horse stables, and palm tree-lined boulevards to visit a local farmer in Riverside’s famed 500-acre greenbelt. Eric Unger of Gable Farms is the newest farmer to join the food hub. He started farming as a way to help his autistic son navigate life after he aged out of the school system. Now, Gable Farms is growing to become a place where other people with neurodivergent challenges can come to get their hands dirty and help harvest food exclusively for the school district. With Berndt’s help, Unger has been able to get many beginning farmer grants from the state to fund his infrastructure, including two greenhouses and a Healthy Soils Grant to build his regenerative practices. Gable Farms grows cherry tomatoes that the school district features on the “Farmers Market Salad Bar.”
Maria Montes, Jackson Elementary kitchen supervisor, with the “Farmers Market Salad Bar.”
A student fills their lunch tray from the “Farmers Market Salad Bar.”
The “Farmers Market Salad Bar”
Our last stop was Jackson Elementary to experience the “Farmers Market Salad Bar.” Maria Montes, a kitchen supervisor at the site, has been with the district for over 16 years. The majority of students at Jackson Elementary qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, so even prior to the implementation of universal meals in California, every student was provided free meals. At lunchtime, a long line of kindergartners and first graders weave around the salad bar where Montes and her staff help the little ones manage the tongs.
“These oranges are from just a few minutes away,” she says with a smile. “For those who are not fortunate to be able to get blueberries or strawberries at home, you know sometimes the money is not there for some of the families, we are this place where they can have that.”
Montes and her team take a lot of pride in setting up the salad bar and helping the little ones load their plates with strawberries, carrots, oranges, broccoli spears, and lettuce. This operation would not be possible without farm to school champions like Asi, Berndt, and the farmers who contribute to the food hub. Together, they collaborate with partners to build a system that better reflects their values and serves their students.
Students enjoy fresh orange slices, strawberries, and apples with their school lunch.
Students gather for school lunch at Jackson Elementary.
Farm to School Trailblazers
In the world of fresh, local school food, the passionate people in Riverside, California, are trailblazers. Their leadership inspires peer-to-peer learning, greater economic growth for the region and its farmers, staff pride in their work, and enthusiastic smiles — and appetites — from students. While their food hub model may not be doable for all school districts, everyone can gain inspiration from their drive to place local food on students’ plates.
Ready to get started?
- Meet your Local Producers: Introduce yourself at your neighborhood farmers market or stop by a local farm to learn what products are available in your local area. Look up your local market.
- Apply to the Farm to School Grant Program: With $30 million allocated in the 2021 and 2022 budgets, California has the largest farm to school grant program in the country. California’s Farm to School Incubator Grant application opens in May 2022. Check out the grant program.
- Receive State Funding for School Nutrition: Improved kitchen facilities and training for staff can help take your school nutrition program to the next level with more scratch cooking. See current CDE Nutrition Funding opportunities.
- Join the California Food for California Kids® Network: This free program supports school nutrition directors in building capacity to provide all students with fresh, locally grown school meals and create connections between the cafeteria, classroom, and garden. Join the network.