Mike Johnson, Cajon Valley School District
It takes a village, or so the saying goes. The phrase is no less true with Farm To School programs and how school districts work to engage their communities. A fine example of this is the custom-built farmers market trailer that Cajon Valley School District uses to bring fun and flavor to schools. The trailer is equipped with a propane-powered barbecue grill, fold-down counter tops, and plenty of storage to bring fresh fruits and veggies to host a pop-up celebration at schools and community events.
“Mark (Mendoza, the district’s Director of Child Nutrition) came up to me one day and we were talking, we share some of the same interests in the culinary arts, and he was showing me pictures of these really neat food carts that people were pulling around to farmers markets. Mark had this inkling of an idea that we could possibly do something like that. And I looked at it and thought, ‘well, we can do anything! Nothing’s impossible, we just have to put our heads together.”
They started by looking for an old truck bed, but quickly realized that finding one in great condition amidst southern California’s salty air was a very tall order. Mike said that, “after mulling it around a little while I said, ‘why don’t we start with a blank canvas and get a little basic trailer and just build up from there? It’ll be more cost effective and we can customize it to what we want without having to use any existing structures.’ And that’s kind of how it began. We got the trailer and I just kind of conjured it up in my head. There’s no blueprints, there’s no drawings, I just built it.”
That combination of imagination and can-do thinking led to a project that Mike says he built in stages as time allowed. The occasional rainy day would ground him from making outdoor repairs at schools sites, and allow him to work in the district’s shop. His years of experience learning various trades all came to bear on the project and some ingenious planning.
Mike knew, for example, that the finished product should be something easy to transport, so his design took into account weight distribution and an efficient use of space. The grill is mounted on a custom-built rail system that allows it to be stored in a space that minimizes the weight being pulled. Explains Mike, “I balanced it on the trailer so that when you’re pulling it, the tongue weight is extremely light. So it can be pulled by a smaller vehicle.” Once the trailer arrives in place, the grill rolls out to the front of the trailer, allowing for more room inside for cooking. “Everything on the trailer is custom,” says Mike.
In addition to the grill, the trailer holds a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables for activities such as taste tests and making smoothies with the bicycle-powered blenders that the nutrition department brings to schools. Mike made sure that the trailer would have a long life span of bringing fun and flavor to schools. “Everything I did on it, if I thought it would be strong enough, I at least doubled the strength on it,” he says. “The fold down bench top, the table top, they all fold down so you can put the produce on them, and all of those were hand made to hold them in place.”
While Mike’s days can be spent at any of the schools in the district, he has had opportunities to see his creation in action. “Well we had to test it out at the shop to make sure it worked, so we had a little BBQ out of the trailer one day. And I’ve seen it at a couple of the schools. I went there to check it out and see how everybody responded to it, and for the most part I think everybody really enjoys it.”
A project like this shows a team that is willing to go above and beyond the normal expectations of the job, and a district culture that obviously displays collaboration across departments and areas of expertise.
When applauded for his work, Mike demurs the praise. “I didn’t do it for any accolades or adoration, but every time you see a child or a parent come up and go, ‘wow! How did they build that?’ and you start engaging their minds to be curious about it, it’s another opportunity to get them away from a computer screen, get their hands on something and give them a different kind of knowledge. I hope that being able to produce something through a trade and possibly inspire a child or a young adult to one day want to do something like that is a good thing.”