Fred Espinosa and San Diego Unified
“We really believe in supporting companies in California. And the closer to where we live, and where we employ people, and where we feed kids, the better. In a nutshell, California Food For California Kids.”
So says Fred Espinosa, Manager of Acquisition and Production for San Diego Unified School District’s Food & Nutrition Services department. Fred leads a team that, among its many responsibilities, sources food for the district’s nearly 150,000 students.
Procurement is one of the three key components of Farm To School, and San Diego Unified, as the second largest school district in the state, uses its tremendous purchasing power to work with local farmers and food producers. Fred’s team is consistently seeking new foods, new vendors, and new opportunities for the students, staff and families they serve.
Vendors know that when trying to work with San Diego Unified, providing local products is key. Explains Espinosa, “I see more [food companies] coming to us with what they have from California as a way to get in the door with us. It’s not that we’re not going to use you because you don’t have California food, but if you do, it’s certainly a bonus.”
But local isn’t the only goal - it’s a starting point, since all the local food in the world won’t move the needle on school meal participation without flavor and appeal to its target audience. “I think that people know that San Diego Unified is about buying local, and when they come to meet us, they’re bringing the portfolio that they have. [Foods] that will meet the health requirements, meet the perception of food that we want to give to children, and most importantly, and I mean most importantly, food that kids will eat. Not adults. Children.”
Harvest of the Month
One of the ways San Diego Unified tests new foods, especially fruits and vegetables, is through the Harvest of The Month program, which brings local, seasonal foods and nutrition education to classrooms in over 350 schools in the district. Tara McNamara, Marketing Coordinator for the department, explains the ways Harvest o f The Month (HOTM) provides valuable educational time.
“We can’t be in every single classroom,'' says McNamara. “And we can’t take every classroom out to the farm. So we had an in-house person create videos, and secured funding through a grant where we’re able to do in-depth lessons about the HOTM item. And at those sites we do see an increased consumption at the salad bar. And as long as what we’re putting on the salad bar is liked by the kids, they’re taking it.”
While a district as large at San Diego Unified has considerable buying power, the competition for local foods is growing. Explains Espinosa, “it’s getting harder, because everyone’s getting into the farm to table game. So I can’t say to you, ‘we’re gonna bring in some great pluots, but we’re gonna raise your lunch price by 25 cents because they cost us a lot of money.’ I can say that at a restaurant, I can say that at a lot of places, but here I can’t say that. We’re still dealing with taxpayer money. So with all these people jumping on the bandwagon, the chain supermarkets, the restaurants, there’s only so much locally grown produce. So I think as a Farm To School Taskforce, we need to be sure that we can keep our hands in that at a price that we can afford to feed kids with.”
Farm To Table Brings Added Competition
One way that San Diego Unified does this is by using its size to make agreements with farmers and other vendors that ensure their stability. “Sometimes we buy the whole farm,” says Espinosa. “We really do, we take the whole crop. Our Farm To School program started with produce and is still super strong. We really believe in sourcing as much as we can locally.”
He also explains that most of the district’s Harvest Of The Month foods come from farms within 50 miles of San Diego.
Commensurate with the size and scope of San Diego Unified, we could share many more stories about how Fred Espinosa and his team have provided leadership within their district, their city, and far beyond. As a large district committed to Farm To School, they bring credibility, leverage, and opportunity to see more and more districts sourcing local foods and educating students, staff and families. Or as Fred says, “in a nutshell, California Food For California Kids.”
 California Food for California Kids is a statewide initiative developed through a partnership between the TomKat Foundation and the Center for Ecoliteracy. It is designed to improve student understanding of where food comes from and child health and academic achievement, while celebrating California agriculture.
 The Farm to School Taskforce is a San Diego County collaboration consisting of 20+ school districts, nonprofits, and advocacy groups focused on growing farm to school throughout the region. The Taskforce is led and managed by Community Health Improvement Partners (CHIP).