Sacramento’s Mayor Kevin Johnson says, “Up next: farm to school capital.”

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Up next: Sacramento, the farm-to-school capital
By Mayor Kevin Johnson, Sacramento

Growing up, I was lucky to have a close relationship with my grandparents. They instilled in me a strong work ethic, made sure I studied hard and did all of my homework. It was only after my homework was done I could go outside to play basketball. (And I worked hard on that too.)

What I didn’t realize at the time was my grandparents were also teaching me about being healthy.

In the backyard my grandfather tended a garden. He grew peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers. We ate dinner together almost every night, and each night there was a vegetable from the garden on my plate. Even though all I wanted was junk food, my grandparents taught me enough about food that I knew the difference between eating “good food” versus eating “bad food.”

As a society, we are busier than ever. We’re cooking less and relying more on pre-made foods. Many lower income neighborhoods have little or no access to grocery stores offering fresh and affordable foods needed to maintain healthy diets. And in these neighborhoods school lunch is sometimes the only meal a child eats. According to a 2011 report from the California Department of Education, 91 percent of students in Sacramento County are eligible for free or reduced meals. It is important these lunches are as healthy as possible.

Kids may not know how to choose healthy food due to a lack of food education. As a result,nearly one in three children in America is obese, with the risk being greater in communities of color.  A poor diet puts our children at risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and, in some cases, premature death.

This is not just bad for our waistlines but for our wallets: the Centers for Disease Control reports that the medical costs associated with obesity in 2008 alone totaled $147 billion.

I wish I could say I had the solution that would magically solve the problems facing the health of our youth, but as mayor of one of the most agriculturally-diverse areas of the country, I know where we can start: with school lunch.

SCHOOL LUNCH: THE BIGGEST RESTAURANT IN TOWN

Last year, Sacramento was designated as America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital. Each year, our region grows more than 3.4 million tons of food.  We’re growing wheat, beans, tomatoes, walnuts, apples and watermelons. We’ve got peaches, pears, plums, almonds, kiwi, prunes and wine grapes. We are raising poultry and beef.

Did you know countries like Japan and India buy their rice from the Sacramento region? It’s true.

Can you believe Yolo, Sutter and Yuba counties each produce approximately eight times more food than their residents consume? Also true.

As it now stands, residents in the Sacramento area consume twice as much local food than any other metropolitan region in the country.

As a community with a rich and diverse agricultural heritage, you’d think if anyone could figure out how to get fresh, local food into school cafeterias—we could do it here in Sacramento.

Some leaders in the Sacramento area are already working on the solution.

SCHOOL LUNCH LEADERS

Brenda Padilla,
pictured left, is the nutrition services manager for the Sacramento City Unified School District.  She was one of eight Californians to receive the 2012 “Health Happens Hero Award” for her work in revamping school lunch in one of the largest school districts in the state. Her take on scratch cooking—and preparing nutritious food students actually want to eat—is making her a game changer in our region.

Farm to School Yolo is working with all five Yolo County school districts.  Yolo County Agricultural Commissioner John Young, pictured left with Yolo County School Food Service Directors from left to right, Zan Wimberly (outgoing Woodland), Cathy Olsen (Winters), Rafaelita Curva (Davis), and Becky Jacobs (outgoing Esparto), has a goal of increasing the amount of fresh, local produce offered in breakfasts, lunches and after school snacks. The program is offering an opportunity to educate students and staff on food origins: how it was grown and how to prepare it for peak flavor and nutritional value, a website for buying and selling, and cooking lessons with local and California product.

What is happening in Sac City Unified and Yolo County is a taste of what’s to come. Think about it: more than 400,000 K-12 students eat lunch in a Sacramento school cafeteria each day. Schools are the largest “restaurant” in the Sacramento region, and is the best opportunity we have to teach students about the importance of what they put in their bodies, setting them on the path toward a lifetime of healthy choices.

FARM TO SCHOOL

Are you ready to transform school lunch? Here are three ways to get started.

ONE – Have lunch at your child’s school and taste what they are eating! Observe food choices in the cafeteria and take note of fresh options available. See what kids are eating versus throwing into the trash.

TW0 – All schools have a food services manager. Get to know yours, and ask to see the school “wellness policy.” What kinds of programs are they offering to educate students about making healthy choices? How can you work with them to leverage community support toward revitalizing school lunch with healthy options?

Encourage the school to take part in the HealthierUS challenge with First Lady Michelle Obama and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Learn more about the program at Team Nutrition.

THREE – If you are a food services professional reach out to Greenwise Joint Venture, a nonprofit organization dedicated to making the Sacramento region the greenest in the country.  I worked with Greenwise to bring the Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard model to Sacramento High School—a program called Edible Sac High.

Find out how you can work with Greenwise to take part in Farm-to-School initiatives by enrolling your district in the Sacramento regional food hub focused on large purchasers like hospitals, schools and other institutions.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to grow up with a garden in the backyard. But in Sacramento, farms are our backyard, and we can work together to grow healthy kids.

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