Broadly defined, “Farm to School” is a program that connects schools (K-12) and local agriculture (e.g., school gardens and farms, commercial farms) with the objective of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias; improving student nutrition; providing agriculture, health, and nutrition education opportunities; and supporting local and regional agriculture (adapted from National Farm to School Network).
In Southern California, Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention (NEOP)-funded agencies supporting school initiatives in San Diego, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside counties began collaborating to strengthen the Farm to School movement through the Harvest of the Month (HOTM) program. While HOTM traditionally focused on promoting seasonal California produce, in Southern
California it has developed into a coordinated strategy to assist school districts with shifting to local procurement and purchasing practices. The impact of this shift has been powerful: locally based agencies have worked together to coordinate a Southern California HOTM calendar that emphasizes both seasonal and local produce items that advance school-based nutrition education, in addition to building the local economy and agricultural sector.
The process for the development of the annual Southern California HOTM calendar is important to understand. Every year, Southern California school districts, farmers, and NEOP-funded agencies working with school districts meet for a Southern California regional planning meeting where they discuss, select, and vote on the HOTM calendar. The calendar features only one fruit or vegetable per month, which is easy for school food service to procure, prepare, and serve. Produce items are determined based on what is available and actively being grown by local farmers that year. Changes in weather, pests, and water supply can drastically alter crop availability from year to year.
San Diego County is a key participant in calendar planning. To inform development of each year’s HOTM calendar, UC San Diego-Center for Community Health School Wellness Program staff provide the county’s seasonal crop availability chart reflecting produce being grown by San Diego farmers. This data is gathered and analyzed by local partner organization, Community Health Improvement Partners. Featured monthly HOTM produce items are rotated each year to ensure students are being exposed to a variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables. The annual Southern California HOTM calendar also guides HOTM workbook lessons used by teachers, students, and classrooms throughout the region.
The process for determining the items featured on the annual Southern California HOTM Calendar is intentionally comprehensive, collaborative, and community-driven. As a result, all local stakeholders are vested in the program goals and implementation.
Demand for the San Diego County HOTM in the Classroom program continues to increase. The School Wellness Program is now partnering with 15 school districts to build their capacity to bring local, seasonal produce to students, up from just two districts last year. These districts agree to procure HOTM items from local and regional farms through their produce distributors. Some districts, including San Diego Unified School District, have also developed videos to showcase the HOTM item and the local farmer who grows it. These “farmer videos” have become extremely popular in participating classrooms and are used in conjunction with the HOTM workbooks developed by the San Bernardino County Office of Education.
San Diego County is fortunate to have a group that convenes locally for a similar purpose through the San Diego Farm to School Taskforce, led by San Diego-based Community Health Improvement Partners. With a mission to increase food knowledge and access to local, healthful foods in the school environment through collaboration, education, environmental change, program development, and outreach, the taskforce is composed of farmers, produce distributors, school district food service staff, community partners, and local universities.
These connections support not only the HOTM program, but also represent multilevel systems of engagement. Several local school district food service directors have shared that this is exactly the type of programming and support they need to increase opportunities for healthy eating.
“Vista Unified School District values the partnership with UC San Diego School Wellness Program and the broader Farm to School Taskforce collaborative to build our capacity to promote local, seasonal fruits and vegetables,” said Amy Haessly, registered dietitian and Nutrition Education and Training Supervisor at the district. “[We] have worked closely with UC San Diego staff to develop a program model that works for school cafeterias, principals, teachers, students and families.”
Guaranteeing that HOTM produce items are truly local remains a challenge when definitions for “local” vary, and when farmers are not able to meet institutional demands. This issue is being addressed through capacity-building strategies developed through the taskforce and school districts’ local produce distributors.
The California Department of Public Health is considering a static HOTM calendar that would differ from the regional framework that has been developed. A static calendar may need to be complemented by the regional calendar to take into consideration key climate issues that might impact crop availability (weather, water access, pests, etc.).
Moving forward, partners such as UC San Diego-Center for Community Health will continue to collaborate with CNAP and other local agencies on the taskforce that are invested in local purchasing practices for schools, and an overall improved local food system in San Diego County. This is a model that will bring about sustained change locally. It can also serve as an example for other communities on how HOTM can be used as a vehicle to advance local procurement and the “Farm to School” movement.
By Kate McDevitt, UC San Diego Center for Community Health
This material was produced by the California Department of Public Health’s Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Branch with funding from USDA SNAP-Ed, known in California as CalFresh. These institutions are equal opportunity providers and employers. CalFresh provides assistance to low-income households and can help buy nutritious food for better health. For CalFresh information, call 1-877-847-3663. For important nutrition information, visit www.CaChampionsForChange.net.