Santa Rosa High School agriculture students headed to their garden in northern Santa Rosa early Tuesday morning to harvest watermelons, tomatoes and other produce destined for the plates of other Santa Rosa students.
In a twist on the farm-to-table movement, the students this year are learning to grow produce that will end up not in fancy restaurants but in grade-school cafeterias.
“I think this is a great way to show Santa Rosa our hard work,” said 12th-grader Takota Tuinstra, 17, as she pulled weeds from a pumpkin patch in the early-morning fog. “Other schools don’t have an opportunity to grow their own food, and maybe we can inspire other kids.”
She and other environmental horticulture and viticulture students were harvesting vegetables planted by a summer class of 15 students, who got credit for spending about 150 hours tending the 1.5-acre garden located between Highway 101 and Old Redwood Highway near Cardinal Newman High School.
They did so under the guidance of Riggs Lokka, the school’s new agriculture teacher, who decided to expand the garden, turn it into a year-round operation and focus on sustainable growing techniques.
Senior Kayla Bower, 17, was one of the students who spent their summer mornings planting and tending crops. She wants to become an agriculture teacher herself and said the experience was gratifying.
“I really wanted to see the farm get better,” Bower said. “I liked being able to see the plants grow from the beginning.”
The result was a bumper crop of cucumbers, squash, melons and peppers by the time school started. The program donated food to the Redwood Empire Food Bank and sold some to local restaurants, but Lokka still was seeking other uses for it.
When Debi Batini, director of career pathways for the school district, saw the amount of food the students were harvesting, she suggested selling some to Child Nutrition Services, the district’s food provider. Child Nutrition Director Bryan Nyberg jumped at the opportunity.
“It all came together really well,” Lokka said. “The students are very excited about it. They get a big grin on their face to know they’re producing not only something they can eat, but that their peers can, too.”
Nearly two decades after famed chef Alice Waters launched her pioneering “Edible Schoolyard” garden and kitchen project at a Berkeley middle school, the examples of schoolchildren growing or preparing their own campus meals are legion.
The first-ever garden supply deal for Santa Rosa City Schools comes as the country as a whole — with notable figures like first lady Michelle Obama carrying the flag — has put greater emphasis on the health of school lunches.
In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger- Free Kids Act set new nutrition standards for school lunches, such as requiring whole-grain pastas and breads and more fruits and vegetables, and provided federal funding to help make it happen.
But Santa Rosa City Schools started even earlier, buying local produce as much as a decade ago, nutrition director Nyberg said.
What began at that time with the purchase of Walker Ranch apples has expanded into partnerships with several local farms, including Bloomfield and Gabriel farms, he said. Nyberg estimates that as much of a quarter of the food he purchases comes from farms and food producers within 100 miles of Santa Rosa, and he’s hoping to continue expanding that share.
“Every year, we’re picking up more and more farms,” he said. “It’s all about the students. Kids deserve better.”
Nyberg said he spends about $100,000 a year on local produce. His overall food budget for the year is a little more than $2 million.
The result doesn’t much resemble your grandmother’s school lunch of mystery meat and Jell-O. Dessert is a local apple or fruit cup; salad bars are a staple; and last year, that quintessential school lunch item, the Tater Tot, was replaced with healthier potato wedges.
The produce from Santa Rosa High School’s farm will make its way onto that menu, Nyberg said. The heirloom tomatoes might be sliced and placed in sandwiches, the lemon cucumbers and Easter Egg radishes likely will end up in the salad bar, and the basil could be incorporated in a tomato or pesto sauce.
Nyberg says he keeps an eye out for deals on canned goods and staple items so that he can spend more on local produce. He’s paying full price for Santa Rosa High’s vegetables, he said.
“I’ve taken advantage of excess foods out there, which save me money so I can spend more when Riggs (Lokka) comes by with a cart of produce,” he said.
The proceeds will buy supplies for the agriculture program, Lokka said.
Nyberg said of the partnership, “We’re really thrilled. The whole thing is full circle.”