At Ochoa Elementary School, small fingers poke smaller seeds into furrowed soil. Beets, broccoli, spinach: Every day, a few students from the pre-kindergarten classroom come out to care for their expanding plants. They water and weed, watching seedlings emerge from these raised garden beds. Soon enough, the whole class will return to harvest the produce they've tended.
But don't go looking in the cafeteria for that produce—at least not yet.
Although the Tucson Unified School District has yet to support garden-to-cafeteria programs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in November that the Tucson Community Food Bank was one of 68 recipients of a Farm-to-School grant, funded as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, to bring more local produce into cafeterias, including produce from school gardens.
The $98,000 award will be shared between the Community Food Bank and TUSD. In addition to supporting the 12 selected schools with workshops, training and basic kitchen and garden infrastructure, staff from the Food Bank and TUSD will work to rewrite the district's food-purchasing guidelines to formally allow preference for local producers.
Many schools throughout TUSD have on-site gardens, but ambiguity in how federal, state and county food-safety regulations align has frustrated attempts to get garden produce served in the school's cafeteria. Since 2011, when the Pima County Health Department reversed an interpretation of its food code that deemed garden produce an unapproved source of public food, "It's not endorsed but not forbidden to serve food out of the garden," said Nick Henry, the Community Food Bank's Farm-to-School coordinator.
Whether it's endorsed or forbidden, students are eating the stuff they grow anyway. "All of the food we grow goes straight into the mouths of our students," said Moses Thompson, a school counselor at Manzo Elementary School. "Just not necessarily in the cafeteria."
Every other Wednesday afternoon at Manzo, students sell bundles of produce harvested straight from the garden—items like broccoli, basil, kale and, for the first time, in November, roasted tilapia, sourced straight from the school's aquaponics system.
Every one of Manzo's 260 students cycles through the garden at some point, either in a weekly ecology class or one-on-one time with Thompson, who does most of his counseling in the garden and works on restorative ecology projects throughout the school.
"The curriculum in the garden elicits a higher depth of knowledge than direct instruction in the classroom," he said. "I've seen marked gains in critical thinking and problem-solving in students as a result of being in the garden."
Math and chemistry are especially emphasized. Some students record compost temperatures and track data on the school's food waste, while others measure water quality and nitrate levels in the aquaponics system. But in terms of nutrition, Thompson said, "Getting the garden's high-quality, organic produce to be available in the cafeteria would be more valuable than the other stuff we do."
Students are more likely to eat healthy—yet traditionally unpopular—foods like fruits and vegetables if they understand where they come from. "If kids grow it and kids tend it, they're excited to try it," Thompson said. He recently hosted a schoolwide tilapia cooking demonstration—and only four students refused to try the fish.
With 50,000 TUSD students in more than 100 schools eating up to 40,000 meals every day, school meals are "not something that we can just pluck out of a garden and serve. It's a bigger system than that, and it needs to be for the health of the public, especially children," said Shirley Sokol, the district's interim food services director. "Our main concern is food safety."
Safety concerns include soil and water contamination as well as improper handling of the produce once harvested.
Others are concerned about students' health in a different way. "One in two of every children I teach is expected to develop diabetes before high school," said Paula McPheeters, who teaches pre-kindergarten at Ochoa Elementary. "And over a third of our students are considered overweight." She recognizes the difficulty of putting fresh, whole foods on the table when "a head of broccoli costs three times as much as a McDonald's hamburger."
A head of broccoli pulled from a school garden, on the other hand, is effectively free. "We have these greens, laden with folic acids and all the other nutrients that our children desperately need, and we want to give it to them," she said.
Ninety-eight percent of Ochoa's students qualify for free or reduced-cost breakfast or lunch. Among the 12 schools selected for the Farm-to-School grant, 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. "These are obviously very high-need schools," Henry said.
But there are still kinks to iron out with district and state regulations. Nineteen TUSD schools received refrigerated salad bar carts with funds from the Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant awarded to Pima County in 2010. At Ochoa, the salad bar cart remains in the kitchen, holding the pre-packaged produce that arrives from TUSD's Food Services central location. As it stands now, the TUSD salad-bar format does not support children selecting greens or vegetables for themselves.
"We're using (the salad carts) in a different way now, but that's not to say that won't change," said Lindsay Aguilar, a dietitian and nutritionist for TUSD.
"The goal for the next school year is to be ... getting food from school gardens into the cafeteria," she said. "And to have local products on our menus."
TUSD and the Food Bank are beginning to review the capacity and distribution systems of local and regional producers to supply food for students enrolled in district schools.
For many, the point of the Farm-to-School grant is that, despite regulations, "It's happening anyway," Henry said. "Kids are eating garden food—and that's great! This process is just going to make it safer, and make it official."