WATSONVILLE -- All month long, kids in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District will get to try locally grown apples during recess. In October, they got pears. It's part of a larger effort to teach students healthy snacking habits by partnering with local farmers.
Pajaro Valley is home to a vibrant farming community, yet the district's students -- many of them from low-income families -- are often unaware of where their food comes from and how to choose nutritious foods. The Farms to Schools program attempts to address that gap.
"It's just a big circle. The more we can show it to kids, the more we can expose them, the more likely they will be to make those choices on their own," said Nicole Meschi, the district's food services director.
For more than 10 years, the district's Farms to Schools program, in a collaboration with Community Alliance for Family Farms has organized field trips to nearby farms and incorporated local fruits and vegetables into its cafeteria menu. There are many like it throughout the country. In recent years, Meschi has slowly expanded Parajo Valley's.
In a school district where 70 percent of students are on reduced-cost or free meal plans, those efforts are critical to teaching students healthy eating habits. As Santa Cruz County's largest school district, Parajo Valley serves more than 10,000 school lunches daily.
The district's Harvest of the Month, modeled on the statewide program, highlights
They strive for fun. A volunteer dressed up as a cauliflower last year, and the cart featured colored varieties of cauliflowers.
"Kids thought it was great you could get purple cauliflower," said Meschi.
She also noted that classroom time is at a premium, so the recess fruit cart volunteers sneak in nutrition education without taking time from other lesson plans.
Kathryn Spencer, the alliance's Central Coast Regional Food systems manager praised's recess fruit carts.
"Pajaro Valley is a very forward-thinking district in what they're doing. I haven't heard any other districts that are doing the same thing."
She noted that letting kids see, touch and taste local produce is a better way to teach nutrition.
"You can learn all you want about strawberries in a classroom, about the vitamins in them," she said, "but having a taste of something local really reinforces learning."
Meschi said she wants to keep the educational component of the fruit carts going, but funding will expire during the 2013-2014 school year. The fruit carts will still be there, but Meschi is looking for parents and other community volunteers to augment the roster of AmeriCorps volunteer nutrition educators.
She stresses that forging the farm-to-table connection is essential for teaching a lifetime of good eating habits.
"It's great to tell kids, you see these apple trees outside your window, that's what you're going to see in the cafeteria today," she said.
Interested in Volunteering?
Contact Nicole Meschi, food services director, Pajaro Valley Unified School District