“One, two, three, eyes on me!” calls Ms. Ewy. Twenty-two fourth graders at Anna Lawrence Intermediate School wriggle in their chairs and look to the front of the room. “How many of you have tried an Asian pear before?” she asks. Five hands shoot up. Renee says it was sweet. Andres forgot what it tasted like. Hayley treads throughout the classroom, offering one pear to each student. The golden pears sit on beige paper towels spread on gray desks. Danny Ewy reads from a worksheet about the Hosui Asian pear. “It says here, ‘This variety contains high quantities of a number of nutrients including potassium, vitamin K, copper, and vitamin C.’” She pauses. “Why does it contain copper?”
“It’s from Arizona!” cries Sarahi.
“That’s right,” says Ewy. Arizona has a lot of copper in the soil, she says, and these pears were grown in that Arizona soil—at a place called Sleeping Frog Farms. On her word, the students cup small hands around the pears and slurp first bites.
“This is just an apple!” Santos cries, indignant. “It’s too cold,” says Sarahi, concerned. “It’s like a sweet apple with sugar in it,” says Sammy, delighted. “I think it’s a million percent good,” says Lizea, definitive.
Locally grown produce has started to pop up in classrooms and cafeterias throughout Tucson Unified School District. Since 2015, many of TUSD’s 50,000 students, spread across 86 school sites, have tried pears, lettuce, or tomatoes grown on local farms or in school gardens.
This is no small accomplishment. While as recently as 2012, garden produce constituted a “food safety concern,” since Shirley Sokol became director in 2013, TUSD’s Food Services has undergone a significant transformation in how it views itself in relation to the educational mandate of TUSD. Today, Food Services is becoming a department that does more than make 30,000 meals a day. Through food literacy classes, garden-to-cafeteria, and farm-to-school programs, Food Services is educating students about how their food choices impact their health, the environment, and Tucson’s local economy. “We’re not just a scoop and a plop on a tray,” says Sokol. “We’re not educators in the classroom, but why can’t we enrich that education?”
When Sokol arrived to the central kitchen 20 years ago, “I kind of felt like I had arrived on the planet Mars,” she says. There was a bakery in the central kitchen that churned out loaves of bread 20 hours a day—they called it the “a.m./p.m. bakery”—and a walk-in refrigerator that held the thousands of sandwiches made with all that bread. When she arrived at TUSD, Sokol had no experience in school food services. She grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska; her grandparents were homesteaders. “When you grow up in Alaska, you have to learn how to take care of yourself,” she says. She moved to Tucson in her late 20s “to thaw out,” she says. She ended up at Biosphere 2 during the first closed mission, when eight Biospherians were living inside the self-contained geodesic dome, and developed a K-12 science camp with the goal of “making sure that the students were taught how to be good stewards of the earth,” she says.
When she was hired at TUSD, she was tasked with reviewing service systems within Food Services. “Twenty years ago, a lot of school districts were reaching out to get contracts from Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, fast-food franchises,” says Sokol. “We didn’t want to do that here.” So she developed in-house grab-and-go stands branded like commercial enterprises. “It was, let’s develop things that we think are marketable and trendy that the kids would like, and then let’s work the numbers where we need them,” she says. Since the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan defunded school food programs, food service departments have become essentially nonprofit entities, responsible for serving food that meets nutritional requirements set by the National School Lunch Program while generating just enough revenue to keep their doors open.
After a century of city- and state-sponsored programs, the National School Lunch Program was established in 1946 to provide low-cost or free lunches to qualified students through federal subsidies to public schools. The program was conceived not only as a way to provide supplemental nutrition to students in need, but also as a means to absorb surplus commodity crops and prop up food prices during the Great Depression. While siphoning excess commodity food into schools might have made sense in the post-war years, today, it means that what students eat is largely determined by federal farm policy rather than local nutritional needs.
And yet, across the country, food served at school is the most important contributor of nutrition for children from low-income families. Nationally, 60 percent of students qualify for the National School Lunch Program, which means their family’s income qualifies them for a lunch provided by the district free or at a reduced price. In TUSD, 74 percent of students are eligible.
Today, Sokol directs a department with nearly 400 employees. Three hundred are spread out in cafeterias across the district and 75 work in the central kitchen, focused on the daunting logistics of distributing 30,000 meals a day to 86 sites across a 240-square-mile area.
“You have to have the black-and-white operation part working,” says Sokol. The food has to be there when students want to eat it, and it has to meet requirements for child nutrition set forth by the USDA. But in this endeavor, Sokol sees an opportunity to also teach students how to be stewards of a sustainable food system.
“She has a very unconventional view of the role of Food Services,” says H. T. Sanchez, the superintendent of TUSD. “She sees the role as not just feeding the child, but also feeding the child’s curiosity, intellect, and mind.”
Of course, she didn’t get there alone.
At 10:24 a.m., in the courtyard of Manzo Elementary School, Mr. Oswald’s third grade class pours out of the classroom and into the garden. Lola is a composter today, so she draws a long thermometer from the supply station and sinks it into one of six compost piles. “Ms. Blue!” she calls. Ms. Blue—Blue Baldwin, Manzo’s ecology coordinator—bends over the thermometer next to Lola. “If the needle is halfway between 100 and 120 and we’re counting by 10s, what is the temperature?” Baldwin asks. Lola points out an insect in the compost pile. Finally, they settle on 110 degrees, and Lola notes the daily temperature on the compost log.
Meanwhile, six students duck into the chicken coop and emerge clasping quietly clucking hens. In the grass-filled courtyard in the front of the school, the relocated chickens graze under a squat, A-frame chicken tractor. Nearby, in the pollinator garden, a desert tortoise—“It is unnamed, for it is a wild animal,” says Baldwin—lumbers through the underbrush. A yellow-and-black swallowtail butterfly flutters past.
A decade ago, Manzo Elementary was yet another underperforming school in a low-income neighborhood. When Moses Thompson was hired to be the school counselor in 2006, there were no butterflies, chickens, or tortoises. There was only an abandoned desert garden across the street. Thompson and Nicole Ramirez, another teacher at Manzo, organized the student council and parents from the neighborhood to clean it up and plant a Sonoran desert biome. “That’s where I started to combine counseling and gardening,” says Thompson. “When kids would come to school in crisis, instead of going to my office, we would go to this outdoor space and talk while we were planting, digging, watering, observing.” The conversation flowed more naturally. Students liked being outside. So Thompson started building garden beds in the school’s courtyards, focusing on vegetable production. “As counselor, my job was to work with the kids that had the most intense behaviors in the school,” he says. “To see those kids connect with gardening was a really powerful thing.”
So he kept expanding the program—he secured grant funding for a water cistern here, a chicken coop there. By 2013, the Manzo community had built a greenhouse for a three-tank aquaponics system, hosted several school-wide tilapia tastings, and started a biweekly afterschool farmers’ market where kids could sell the produce they grew to their parents and community.
“It’s still a school that experiences a lot of stresses related to poverty,” says Thompson. “But once gardening became the identity of the school, you saw kids excited to be there.” Students stopped acting out; fighting decreased. “Kids felt like part of what was happening there. When kids feel valued, it makes learning happen much more naturally,” he says. After the Arizona Department of Education ranked Manzo as an underperforming school two years in a row, teachers started using the garden to target math and language arts test scores. “In the span of a year, we went from a low performing D to a mid-range C,” says Thompson.
But while this transformation was still unfolding, in November of 2012, Manzo was included on a list of 14 schools to be closed by TUSD due to a $17 million budget deficit. “I don’t think the district was really aware of the programs that were happening, and how much the community supported those programs,” says Thompson.
Nick Henry, who was then the Farm-to-Child Manager at the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, helped organize parents to tell garden-related stories at a governing board listening session. One parent told a story about her son, Emiliano, reacting to the news that their family would be relocating to Phoenix. “Emiliano was not having it, so he stood up and announced he wouldn’t be joining them,” recalled Henry. “So they said, that’s great, but how are you going to survive? He said, ‘Well, I know how to grow my own food. I’ll plant a garden, build a compost pile, start my own recycling business.’” Henry says this story stood out as a powerful—and positive—moment in an otherwise contentious meeting.
When 11 schools were closed the following fall, Manzo stayed open. Suddenly, the value of a school garden was made tangible. If a garden could save a chronically underperforming school, what else could it do?
“At its best, when you’re getting parents and teachers involved, a garden program can help transform a landscape—the whole environment a student is in,” says Henry, who now directs the Community Food Resource Center at the Food Bank. “Not just when they’re out in the garden and occasionally in the cafeteria, but also when they’re at home. Kids can influence their parents, too.”
But gardens require resources. Like a baseball team or theater department, a garden requires program development, teacher time, and school support. Even today, school-gardens programs are vulnerable, dependent on the energy of one or two people who are inspired to take them on. But garden programs have flourished across TUSD—at the start of the 2016-17 school year, there were 57 active school gardens—mostly because students love them. They love the dirt, the movement, the clucking chickens and smooth eggs. They love watching lanky plants emerge from the ground like magic beanstalks.
And, to the surprise of many adults, kids love to eat the food they grow. Studies show that students who participate in garden or farm-to-school programs are more willing to chose and consume fruits and vegetables in a lunchroom setting, and also more likely to improve their diets outside of school, including eating a larger variety of vegetables and more frequently requesting vegetables at home.
Research also shows that it takes an exposure of eight to 15 times before a kid develops a taste for a new food. “You have to keep trying with kids before they develop a taste for something,” says Henry. Pears are easy, but turnips take time. “Poor families can’t afford to do that,” he says. “They stick to foods that they know their kids will eat. They can’t have their kids throw food on the floor, or just not eat it. The cafeteria is where you have that opportunity. There is a huge opportunity to influence kids’ palates.”
In 2012, Community Food Bank and TUSD received a $98,000 Farm-to-School grant from the USDA to start the work required to incorporate produce from gardens and local farms into cafeterias. That grant catalyzed the relationships that are literally bearing fruit today, connecting leadership at TUSD with people at the Community Food Bank like Henry and grassroots gardeners like Thompson. In 2014, Manzo became the first school in Pima County to be certified by the Arizona Department of Health Services to serve garden produce in the cafeteria; since then, Borton Primary Magnet, Mission View Elementary, John B. Wright Elementary, and Tucson High Magnet School have also been certified.
But by design, school gardens don’t produce all that much food. A school like Manzo, which is on the high end of production, might hold five garden-to-cafeteria events in a school year, during which students get to try salads or roasted vegetables made with vegetables grown on site. The other 175 days of school, those students are largely eating USDA commodity crops and prepackaged, processed food. To really change what kids eat, you have to go to the farm.
“Shirley will call me at my desk and I’m like, ‘Food Services, this is Rani,’ ” says Rani Olson, TUSD’s Farm-to-School chef. “And she’ll say, ‘Rani, Farm-to-School Chef! You have to say it!’”
Sokol is understandably proud to have hired Olson, the district’s first Farm-to-School chef and the creator of TUSD Grows, a food literacy, gardening and farm-to-cafeteria program. Olson is an urban planner and a plant-based chef—before starting at TUSD, she was the executive chef at Food for Ascension Café; before the restaurant closed in 2015, she was working with Manzo students to source garden vegetables for the farm-to-table menu.
Today, Olson’s job at TUSD is to incorporate gardening, food literacy, and locally sourced food into the vast and vastly complicated department that is Food Services. She works closely with Thompson, who now works to support school gardens across the district in a position shared by TUSD Food Services and the University of Arizona.
“For TUSD to take a leap and say, what these guys are doing isn’t scary, but something we should embrace at the institutional level,” says Thompson, “that is powerful. That is where your impact becomes super broad.”
The Food Services department sprawls through an unremarkable building in an industrial park east of Kino Parkway and south of Broadway. Gray cubicles and windowless offices surround a central kitchen that hums with considerably less energy than it did two decades ago. The Food Services central kitchen prepares 700 meals every day for satellite schools—charter and private schools that have contracted with TUSD for their food service—but mostly, save for the occasional batch of 10,000 muffins made in cauldron-sized mixing bowls, the kitchen is quiet.
Today, all the action is in the warehouse. “The food has to be here at least five days before it’s needed,” says Ron Tolf, the warehouse manager. “The first day we print, then we pull, then we deliver, then the sites have a day to prep, and then they serve.” Print paperwork, pull food, and load it onto one of the eight trucks that stops at 11 schools every day. To balance each truck’s load, Tolf designs each route so that a truck stops at one high school, two middle schools, and eight elementary schools. “You might have a high school that serves 600 pizzas every day, and they come 24 to a case,” he says. “That’s a lot of cases of pizza.”
Which might be the best way to describe the warehouse: It is a lot of cases of pizza. It is a lot of boxes of frozen Tyson grilled chicken. It is pallet after pallet of string cheese and strawberry-flavored yogurt and whole-wheat bread. “Today, for distribution on Monday, we have 172 cases of baby carrots, 84 cases of sliced onions, 92 cases of sliced green peppers, 92 cases of sliced red peppers,” says Tolf. He’s not looking at an invoice—he just knows what’s happening in a warehouse that contains, on any given day, $1 million worth of inventory. “Oh, and 180 cases of cantaloupe,” he adds.
Since The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed in 2010, fresh produce has taken up a bigger share of the warehouse space, says Tolf. The bill made the first significant changes to the school lunch program in 30 years, including aligning school meals with the MyPlate nutrition guidelines that replaced the food pyramid in 2011 and mandating bigger portions of whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.
There is a substantial space between wanting to serve local food in a school cafeteria and actually serving local food in a school cafeteria, and that space is the difference between a refrigerated warehouse and a fall morning farmers’ market. It is the difference between a commodity tomato—uniform, bland, and reliable—and an heirloom tomato—distinct, flavorful, and unpredictable. When a Food Service department gets audited, it must demonstrate that its students were served meals that contain all the nutritionals required by the USDA within a menu cycle. Order a thousand pounds of deliciously erratic tomatoes and it’s suddenly a lot harder to calculate how many slices, sandwiches, and serving sizes you can serve to how many students.
USDA-approved vegetables are arranged by color category: dark green; red and orange; legumes; starchy; and “other,” a category which is not mandatory and therefore usually not reimbursable. “Students have to have a certain number of servings offered to them every week,” says Olson. “The challenge is that what really grows well in Tucson and is culturally relevant falls into the ‘other’ category. Cabbage, cucumbers, radishes, summer squash—these are key ingredients that fit really well into the cafeteria, but they are optional.”
Depending on the menu, the USDA will reimburse 80 cents to $1.50 per student per meal. “If you’re going over the amount you can be reimbursed for, the department is absorbing that cost,” says Olson. Because food costs are averaged out over TUSD’s five-week menu cycle, “we can streamline and be careful about how we use local products,” says Sokol, the Food Services director.
Most of the food served in school cafeterias comes from high-volume distributors capable of supplying the food required for 30,000 meals on demand. In 2015, TUSD changed its bid structure from a single-vendor contract—one source for meat, one source for dairy—to one where multiple vendors could be awarded contracts in each category. That change opened the door for the Community Food Bank to apply and be awarded a contract as a small-volume produce vendor.
Research shows that it takes an exposure of eight to 15 times before a kid develops a taste for a new food. “The cafeteria is where you have that opportunity.”
“Farmers are only growing on 60 percent of their possible land, so there’s a totally underutilized resource for food production,” says Kara Jones, the local food pathways manager at the Food Bank. According to a survey conducted by the Food Bank, southern Arizona farmers have the capacity to grow an additional 30 million pounds of food on their existing land. In 2015, the Food Bank started working with a group of 15 small farmers to coordinate the supply, storage, and delivery of local food to institutional markets like Tucson Medical Center and TUSD. “But farmers aren’t going to grow it unless they are sure they can sell it,” says Jones.
In September of 2015, TUSD purchased 6,000 pounds of Asian pears from Sleeping Frog Farms through the Community Food Bank. Pears and other fruit-by-the-unit are an easy starting point—they can be distributed as classroom snacks without any processing beyond a quick wash in the central kitchen. And kids like fruit. That purchase was replicated again in 2016, with 2,000 pounds of Asian pears distributed as snacks in schools like Lawrence.
Both Jones and Olson would like to see that purchase grow—a lot. Sokol says that Food Services spends around $1.5 million on produce every school year. To redirect even a fraction of that purchasing power to local farms would offer economic stability to local farmers who desperately need it.
In 2016, the Food Bank opened a purchase order for the district at the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market, enabling Olson to buy local food for special events or education. But there’s only so much food available at a farmers’ market. The goal, say Jones and Olson, is to place preseason orders three to four months before an anticipated harvest—time enough for a farmer to plant and grow a crop specifically for TUSD. It’s an ambitious goal. Although other states have successfully managed to “forward contract” food purchase orders to give local farmers a jumpstart on planting, this kind of procurement has yet to get off the ground in Arizona.
Breakfast and lunch menus are typically planned a year in advance, with constant shuffling as the school year progresses. “Last year, the things that they had on their menu were not in line with seasonality,” says Jones. “Rani has worked really hard to align the school lunch program with local seasonality. For example, in the last school year eggplant was being served in December. This year, it’s in August. So that’s a huge structural shift that was made to enable local food purchase.”
Olson has also been working to cross-reference the 2016-17 school lunch menus with a list of seasonal local crops. She’s noted possible high-volume crops that could be substituted in reimbursable meals for each menu cycle—summer squash, green beans, and apples in October; radishes, orange, and winter squash in November. “The idea is that these are planted items,” says Olson—items planted specifically to fulfill an order for TUSD. But these crops weren’t ordered, so they weren’t planted, so they weren’t grown in sufficient volumes to fulfill a district-sized order. Ever optimistic, Olson is now looking ahead to December and January menus for preseason orders of broccoli, lemons, and Swiss chard.
“This is such a different way of working with food, particularly in a culture that’s been functioning for so long in the way that food is just there, and so much of it that you don’t know what to do with it,” says Olson. She compares preseason ordering to a friend inviting you to a party on a Friday night six months from now. “You’re like, that sounds amazing! I don’t know—I’ll know more a month out, when I have a better idea of what’s going on in my life,” she says. “Meanwhile, the farmers are like, we can’t throw the party until you tell us right now. That is what’s difficult to communicate to these larger institutions.”
Jones also recognizes that the Food Bank is asking TUSD to form a fundamentally different relationship with a food vendor. “In the industry of big business food, the mode of operating is super transactional,” she says. “I’m going to send an email to our big food distributor that I need 10,000 pounds of potatoes tomorrow and it’s just done. And here we are saying, ‘Sit down with us! We want you to meet the farmers! Let’s have a potluck!’ We’re changing it from transactional to: What does it mean to truly be in a partnership?
“We’re not just a scoop and a plop on a tray … We’re not educators in the classroom, but why can’t we enrich that education?”
“There are other districts that really benefit farmers and do this successfully with just three products,” says Jones. They could be local heritage foods, or nutritionally significant foods—or foods that kids just really like to eat. “I don’t think a huge district like TUSD would ever even go majority local,” she says. “They could still do a dollar volume that would be significant for farmers and significant for students.”
The dollar volume that will be mutually beneficial both for southern Arizona farmers and TUSD is still being determined. But the significance of making even a small amount of fresh, local food available in a school lunch is less about today’s lunch and more about the choices a kid will make about lunch for the rest of their life.
It’s a daunting task to redirect the inertia of an institution as large as TUSD. But ask anyone pressing into that force why they’ve stuck with it, and the answer is simple. Kids inherit the earth. Change a kid’s relationship to food, and you can change that kid’s relationship to their environment. Grow a garden and you can change the tone of a community. Change what’s on a cafeteria tray and you can inspire parents, teachers, and desk-bound administrators.
“The biggest thing is getting the community involved in the school again,” says Ann Kobritz, the principal of Lawrence Intermediate. Lawrence occupies a far-flung corner of TUSD, on the threshold of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe Reservation. Ninety percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches; most of the school’s 367 students are Pascua Yaqui or Hispanic. “The school used to be a cultural and community focal point,” Kobritz says. “Food is a mechanism to bring families back to the school.” She hopes to revive a long overgrown school garden “to bring people back together—to watch the garden grow and take care of it together.”
“If students learn to be good stewards of the earth, they are going to be the ones who are going to make a decision about what the agricultural system looks like when they are adults,” says Sokol. “Hopefully they’ll do it with the right intention. We’re planting a seed for their future.”
Back in Ms. Ewy’s fourth grade classroom, the students slurp their Asian pears until only stems and seeds remain. Lizea has an idea about how she’s going to procure more pears for their next snack. She gathers up the remains of her pear and announces, “We should plant the seeds so that we can have more snacks. I’m going to put the seeds in a cup, and ask Ms. Ewy for soil, and then I’m going to take it home and grow it.” ✜
Megan Kimble is the editor of Edible Baja Arizona and the author of Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food.