By Benjy Egel
Alfred Melbourne tromped through Three Sisters Gardens’ half-acre urban farm on a recent Friday morning dressed in black Ray-Ban sunglasses, cut-off shorts and a black tank top showing off his lean build and many tribal tattoos. Hummingbirds flitted through bean plants in West Sacramento’s Broderick neighborhood, next to rows of tomatoes and eggplants poking out from tangled vines. There were bell and serrano peppers, purple and Thai basil, two types of melons and patches of cilantro.
Some of that produce, planted and harvested by volunteers as young as 11, will end up on West Sacramento school lunch trays. It’s part of the “farm-to-school” movement making its way through the Sacramento region and California as a whole, one Melbourne wants to see grow. “We want the kids to see where their food comes from. We want them to actually connect with the land,” said Melbourne, a Hunkpapa Lakota tribe member. “Being native, we know that the land, the mother, has healing properties, so just making contact and seeing (how) a handful of seeds can turn into a whole field of food growing … we want them to be a part of that magic.”
As downtown Sacramento’s annual Farm-to-Fork Festival draws approximately 150,000 visitors throughout September, the city’s children finally seem to be inching toward healthier meals at school. The days of Sysco chicken patties and freezer-burned raw broccoli could slowly be on the way out thanks to a new state-of-the art central kitchen in Sacramento, shifting state politics and growing relationships with local farmers.
Longtime farm-to-school proponents received a boost from California’s first couple, particularly First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who’s made the movement one of her priority issues. After years of slow progress, millions of dollars are flowing toward locally sourced school lunches, helping offset some of the costs associated with higher-quality food.
The 2022-23 state budget included $60 million in farm-to-school grants, up from $8.5 million in the inaugural program two years ago and well beyond the $12 million the USDA doled out nationwide last year. Gov. Gavin Newsom also approved $600 million in school kitchen upgrades, visible in the new combination ovens coming to every campus in the Sacramento City Unified School District.
“I think we have an opportunity to heal our state and our country through our emphasis on farm-to-school,” Siebel Newsom said. “There’s only an upside if we do this right.” BIG INVESTMENTS The United States was just starting to push its way out of the Great Recession in November 2012 when Sacramento voters overwhelmingly approved a $414 million bond package centered on the city’s schools.
Measure R, as the smaller of the bond package’s two elements was known, included $68 million to fix up playgrounds, improve school safety and fund construction of a central kitchen to feed the district’s children.
Ten years later, Sacramento City Unified has transformed a former dumping ground for unneeded desks and books into a 50,000-square foot industrial kitchen in Tahoe Park. It has another 50,000 square feet of warehouse storage, plus parking and gas for a fleet of delivery trucks.
The Central Kitchen produced daily meals for 4,000 students this summer. That’s a gargantuan feat in its own right, but the end goal is much larger: feeding all 43,000 Sacramento City Unified students freshly prepared free meals from The Central Kitchen in the next three to five years.
That means giant sous-vide cookers preparing tender chicken breasts and thighs to be sliced for soups, salads and enchiladas. Chef Tom Lucero, formerly the corporate executive chef over Sienna Restaurant and Land Ocean American Grill, will eventually oversee more than 30 cooks processing produce and baking bread, muffins and pizza dough.
A roving food truck will also make use of those fresh ingredients, serving junior high students breakfast 45 minutes before class begins. The district wants to make school meals appealing enough — cool enough, really — that kids will seek them out, said Sacramento City Unified Executive Director of Nutrition Services Diana Flores.
“A lot of students do not even participate in school meals because they don’t either like the taste, they don’t like the stigma associated with eating school meals or they’re frankly just too busy socializing at lunchtime,” Flores said. “We want to have a meal that’s so great that we’ll bring them in to eat, so they do better in the classroom.”
The Central Kitchen now sources from more than 45 area growers, purchasing directly when possible to cut out distributors’ costs. It buys out Rancho Cordova-based Soil Born Farms’ entire lettuce crop, purchases Perry & Sons watermelons from Manteca and gets tomatoes, squash and cucumbers from Root 64’s one-acre farm just down the street in Tahoe Park.
Rice comes from SunWest Foods in Yuba City, while Sierra Sun Fruit Marketing supplies peaches from outside Fresno and Miller Citrus Grove hooks the district up with Penryn mandarins.
Statewide farm-to-school efforts began building since the mid-2000s, but typically lacked funding, district Assistant Director of Nutrition Services Kelsey Nederveld said. Sacramento voters helped remedy that with Measure R in 2012, and the state has prioritized it as of late.
New this year as well: free breakfast and lunch for all California public school students regardless of family income, thanks to a budget bill Newsom signed into law in July 2021.
A bounty of studies indicate students’ diets are a major factor in their academic performance. Nourish the stomach, nourish the mind, Siebel Newsom said — with the climate-friendly appeal of local sourcing a cherry on top.
“We have this huge opportunity in front of us to benefit not just children’s health and well-being and academic prowess, but also climate change by reducing transportation, reducing emissions through a circular economy,” Siebel Newsom said.
GROWN BY KIDS, EATEN BY KIDS
Melbourne’s story has become famous in local farm-to-fork circles. After serving 18 years in prison, he turned to gardening as a form of therapy. With support from the West Sacramento Urban Farm program, he eventually founded the nonprofit Three Sisters Gardens on the corner of 5th and C streets in 2018.
Three Sisters has since expanded to four urban farms, including one across the street from Elkhorn Village Elementary School, all with a holistic approach meant to benefit the earth and community. Melbourne eventually wants 50 farms in West Sacramento, part of a “land back” approach he says Native Americans need to flourish.
“We want to give them a sustainable food system in our own community using the land that we have available to us,” Melbourne said.
Three Sisters donates 40% of what it grows to local food banks or community members, and sells much of the rest at area farmers markets. The Natomas Unified School District was its only wholesale client up until the beginning of summer.
But Natomas isn’t as close as Melbourne would like, despite being just a 15-minute drive from the main farm. He’s ended that contract and beginning another one with Washington School District in West Sacramento, hoping to keep his produce as close to his historically-underserved community as possible.
“We’re working in the communities where the help is needed the most,” Melbourne said. “We’re trying to show people how to grow their own food at the same time as we’re giving food to the community … showing them how to fish as opposed to just giving them a fish.”
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