WALKING A GREENER PATH
Natomas schools grow young minds and local food.
WRITTEN BY COLIN JOSEPH GOULDING
PHOTOS BY CANDISS KOENITZER
Paso Verde student Jacob Ramos holds a healthy meal of rock cod fish tacos with cabbage and tomato slaw, a small salad, and mandarin orange
At the newly opened Paso Verde School in Natomas, only one attraction stands between students arriving for school and their day's lessons: the Lettuce Turnip the Beet garden.
Situated on a strip of land separating the campus from Del Paso Boulevard, the garden, with its first round of seedlings, serves as an extension of both the classroom and the cafeteria, bringing many students closer to their short food-supply chain.
"Part of it is how we expose students to the environment," says Tonja Jarrell, founding principal of Paso Verde School. "We're looking at what it means to get students' hands back into the earth, and parents are excited about that."
Taking nothing for granted
The Nutrition Services department of Natomas Unified School District undertook the project of opening the school's garden with the help of a United States Department of Agriculture Farm to School Grant, awarded to the district in June of last year. Natomas was one of only 10 districts in the country to receive the award in 2017. USDA officials say the grants help improve access to local food in schools, provide training and technical assistance to staff and administrators working on these issues, and disseminate research and data on existing programs and opportunities for expansion.
"I never really thought that we would get it," says Vince Caguin, director of Nutrition Services for Natomas Unified School District. "It was my first official grant I wrote by myself. If I had known how much work was involved, I would have shied away from it. At the 11th hour, I was still faxing out documents and résumés of the people involved."
With help from the grant, the Nutrition Services staff excitedly integrated more locally sourced food into the meal programs; part of the grant allowed for some of the staff to train with Alice Waters' The Edible Schoolyard Project. The importance of the quality of the nutrition they provide never leaves the minds of the school staff members, as some students in the district receive all of the food they will consume during a single school day from the campus kitchens. Serving more than 10,000 meals each day, the NUSD nutrition services staff members use the locally sourced ingredients in breakfast, lunch, snack, and supper student meals. With so many meals to provide, quality is a main focus at Paso Verde School.
"We aspire to use the farm-to-fork movement to inspire how we feed and teach our children," Jarrell says.
The keys to growing success are displayed at the Lettuce Turnip the Beet garden at Paso Verde School
To help expand that teaching into the community, NUSD also launched a successful Cooking with Kids adult education course for parents and their children. In this class, head chef James Valles teaches adults and their children how to utilize local ingredients in multiple dishes, expanding their families' recipe Rolodexes.
"They come with their families and learn how to make their food go further with produce," Valles says. "A lot of them are really busy adults and don't have time to cook; they're stuck in the same meal routine. The parents that I've talked to appreciate it."
Aside from the impact on the culinary program at Paso Verde School, teachers are employing the garden to expand the classroom into the schoolyard. According to Jarrell, teachers already have taught art, math, and science lessons out in the Lettuce Turnip the Beet garden.
"As much as we serve food, we're in the business to teach children about food," Caguin says.
NUSD continues to take advantage of both the USDA grant and community support year round, bolstering its ability to provide local fare during the winter and summer feeding programs for students while they are on school breaks. With the two-year grant, district leaders also plan to continue the gastronomic education of their students by installing a similar garden program at Discovery High School this year.
Colin Joseph Goulding is a cook and baker who has refused to go pro. When not working as an analyst at the University of California, Davis, he spends his free time cultivating musquée de Provence pumpkins and yuzus in the front yard of his home in West Sacramento.