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Virtual taste tests, home garden kits, and working with local farmers fuels school nutrition programs to keep students engaged.

With all of the limitations faced by schools during the pandemic, thinking creatively about how to keep students engaged has burst forth across the country. The Farm to School Collective, a gathering of eight San Diego County school districts’ nutrition programs, spurred on that creativity by facilitating and sharing new, innovative techniques to ensure students maintained access to local foods, nutrition education, and school garden efforts. From Virtual Taste Tests to home garden starter kits to working with local farmers, Farm to School Collective districts have shown creativity in supporting and expanding their Farm to School programs. These districts have developed new ways of engaging students, teachers, and families in new and exciting ways that may just build models for the post-COVID future.

Virtual Taste Tests

With students consigned to virtual classes, the Month program became more challenging to conduct. How to encourage children to taste new fruits & vegetables in their classrooms when their classrooms were no longer there? For Janelle Manzano, the Farm to School Program Specialist for San Diego Unified School District, the answer was simple: get creative.

Janelle used her virtual nutrition classes to invite students (and families) to a Virtual Taste Test. With produce made available through the district’s curbside pickup program, students were invited to log on to a Zoom call with Janelle and two FoodCorps volunteers, as she taught about the various items and had students share their experiences simultaneously over the video conferencing platform.

“Watching kids try kiwi, some for the first time, and talk with them about the importance and fun of fresh fruits and vegetables, is a great opportunity,” says Janelle. “It’s a great way to maintain nutrition education in the classroom, whether that classroom is on a school campus or in a child’s home.”

Home Garden Kits

Sweetwater Union High School District was one of several districts to take advantage of the Farm to School Collective sourcing hundreds of Home Garden Starter Kits. The kits are comprised of seed packets, peat pellets, instructions, and suggestions for starting a simple home garden in a space as small as a kitchen counter. Five schools in the district were provided kits to include in their curbside meal distribution. “It was something that really helped to tie kids back to their schools and the school meal program,” says Eric Span, Director of Nutrition Services for the district. “Parents, our staff, and administration all appreciated it and it was a bonus activity for our students that helped them see how easy it is to start a small home garden.”

Locally-sourced Foods

For Amanda Thomas, Director of Child Nutrition for Lakeside Union School District, working with local farmers was a catalyst for more families engaging with her department’s work. On the last day for drive-thru service before the district’s Spring Break, Amanda’s team provided 1,200 3-lb. bags of organic tangerines from Stehly Farms, a local farm that works with a number of school districts to make their local produce available for students across San Diego county. Amanda’s department posted and shared pictures of the tangerines in advance of the drive-thru distribution, driving demand to new heights. Says Amanda, “We had a lot of really excited parents and students, and we had a higher turnout than we typically have for drive-thru meals.” She says that the organic bulk fruit also brought unsolicited thanks and praise from parents in the district. “I got several emails from parents just thanking me, and saying that they've noticed that we're trying harder to incorporate healthier and higher quality foods.”

No-cost meals and friendly service among the core services that have been provided throughout the pandemic, despite the ever-changing landscape

As schools have adapted to the rapidly-changing dynamics of COVID-19, leaving districts fluctuating between in-person and distanced learning, one aspect of schools’ services has been consistent throughout the pandemic: School Nutrition.

San Ysidro Middle School School Meal Pick up Site

From the initial shutdown in March, school nutrition programs have worked to ensure that children in need of nutritious meals are served. Programs have adapted to ever-changing guidelines from local health officials as well as the USDA, which has changed regulations several times. Many districts are now working to provide healthy and nutritious meals via drive-through and walk-up service, with meals provided for all seven days of the week.

Through a special emergency waiver from the USDA, all meals are offered at no charge to children ages 2-18 at any of the sites that districts are utilizing.

As San Diego County enters another restricted phase ahead of Thanksgiving, the need for reliable nutrition continues for children and families across the county.

“Right now we’re doing 98% distance-learning,” says Eric Span, Director of Child Nutrition for Sweetwater Union High School District. “Everything that we are doing right now is designed so that parents are able to pick up multiple meals in one day.” This model has allowed the district to make meals available in a way that ensures that children’s needs are met.

In the Lakeside Union School District, where a hybrid model of in-person and distance learning has been employed, Director Amanda Thomas’s team has re-worked their central kitchen to produce hot meals for in-person learners while maintaining a grab & go operation daily for students who continue to participate in distance learning. This ensures that 100% of the district’s student's nutritional needs are met during the pandemic.

“Grab & go food service is a whole different method that we were not previously exposed to. This is not our standard operation, but we are continuously learning how to strategically craft and package innovative menu items for our students."

San Ysidro Middle School School Meal Pick up Site


Despite the constantly shifting set of rules and requirements, these nutrition leaders and their teams recognize that the core mission of the service they provide is feeding children and helping families.

“We know that families have been struggling,” says Span. "We lost a lot of jobs, a lot of businesses closed. To be able to help our community, that’s really what being an American is supposed to be about. I love that we get to be a part of taking care of people, that’s what service is all about.”

Says Thomas, "We have a lot of families that rely on these meals. I am a Registered Dietitian, so to me, nutrition is key. Being proud of the meals that we are providing these students and at no cost to the families has been a great thing. And even with all of the changes, my team continues to work hard to produce high-quality meals for our students, and we continue to create and serve a handful of scratch-made meals that our students love."

"My staff is awesome,” says Span. "I owe everything to them with everything they have been able to do. We don’t think about the fact that the ladies and gentleman who are out there serving these meals are often leaving their families at home. They’re putting themselves out there in the public during this COVID outbreak. They show up with a smile, and they know what they’re doing is helpful to the community because they live in the community.”

San Ysidro Middle School School Meal Pick up Site

The Collective partnered with Janelle Manzano, the Farm to School Program Specialist at San Diego Unified, to host an online educational event for parents, faculty, and teachers who are interested in learning more about Farm to School, its many benefits, and where San Diego Unified's school food comes from! To watch a recording of this event, please click here.

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