On May 21, public school districts across the Sacramento region kicked off this year's Million Meals Summer initiative on the west steps of the Capitol in Sacramento. Picnic at the Capitol was the biggest event in town, bustling with students excited to learn more about where their food comes from and how it reaches the table. Students were joined by elected officials, school district leaders, and community and business partners. A full farmers market offered magenta kohlrabi, bundles of glistening greens, and fresh spinach. There were honeybee hives, a full-grown dairy cow, and free tomato starts for aspiring young gardners. Students from five area school districts (Elk Grove, Natomas, Sacramento City, Twin Rivers, and Washington) arrived to enjoy a healthy, delicious, and freshly-prepared lunch and learn more about the bountiful California fruits and vegetables on display.
When schools close in the summer months, so do their cafeterias. Many students who depend on school meals are at risk of going hungry, which can have impacts on their health and future academic achievements. California Senator Richard Pan is working with other elected officials and community groups to expand the Summer Food Service Program and increase access to free, healthy meals all summer long. "As America's farm-to-fork capital, Sacramento has a moral imperative to lead the way to ensure our kids get the food they need to succeed — both during the school year and during summer," said Senator Richard Pan at the event. Through the work of the Summer Meals Collaborative over the past two years, there has been a 20 percent increase in the number of meals served in Sacramento County's under-resourced communities.
With generous support from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the Center for Ecoliteracy joined the Summer Meals Collaborative this year alongside other organizations such as the YMCA, Red Cross, Sacramento County Libraries, No Kid Hungry, and United Way to promote fresh, California-grown fruits and vegetables in summer meals. Our efforts included the launch of an ambitious promotional campaign with outdoor media placements and marketing resources for coalition members to promote their own summer meals programs and encourage higher student participation. The Center worked closely with the school districts in the collaborative to provide technical assistance around menu development and planning, helping to prioritize and incorporate more fresh California-grown fruits and vegetables into this year's summer meals.
At the kickoff event, students eagerly lined up for the first summer meal of the season. Plates brimmed with a bounty of bright colors and flavors. Twin Rivers offered a fresh take on chicken street tacos topped with a crunchy shredded cabbage slaw and Chef Spencer of Sysco Sacramento contibuted hearty potato and white bean tacos. Washington Unified offered their recipe for cilantro rice to compliment Sacramento City's ensalada de frutas con chile. And Riverside Unified, participating in a Summer Meals Collaborative in Riverside County, shared their vibrant and crunchy cucumber and tomato salad. The menu was an expression of the true collaborative efforts across the region and the state — 1,493 meals were served that day.
Reactions to the Picnic at the Capitol were enthusiastic. Vince Caguin, Director of Nutrition Services and Warehousing at Natomas Unified School District shared that, "the Picnic at the Capitol event showcased what is possible wnen various organizations collaborate to serve freshly prepared food and create a fun summer experience." One teacher from Sacramento City described how permissions slips for the event raised awareness with parents about the availability of summer meals. A student we spoke with said the meal served at the Capitol was one of her favorites from her school in Twin Rivers Unified School District and that she was excited to learn about the availability of summer meals and the food trucks — especially if they served street tacos!
By the end of the day, kids were full and happy, arms overflowing with beautiful fresh produce and tomato plants to bring home. All summer long, children will be able to eat at any of 31 summer meal sites in Sacramento County.
Tell us how you are featuring fresh, California-grown fruits and vegetables in your district this summer!