The Mix

News, stories, and tips for salad bar success.

Local Produce: Fueling Kids

Vista Unified School District is Bridging the Gap Between Students and Their Food Sources 

By: Heidi Stimac

Roasted chickpeas and fresh pomegranates are items you probably don’t expect to see in an ordinary school cafeteria. But luckily for the students at Vista Unified School District (VUSD) in Oceanside, California, Director of Child Nutrition Services Jamie Phillips is not interested in creating an ordinary school cafeteria experience.

District Enrollment: 21,500

Number of Schools in District: 26

Free and Reduced rate: 64%

District ADP (Average Daily Participation): 53%

Director Phillips and his team at VUSD are salad bar experts, with seemingly endless events and strategies to keep their bars relevant and healthy. One of their most engaging events, “Fear Factor,” includes a booth set up with the help of parent volunteers that offers students tastings of unique, fresh foods that will later be incorporated into the salad bar, like roasted chickpeas and local pomegranates. If students can guess what foods they tried, they earn an “I Conquered the Fear Factor” sticker. Director Phillips says that when they host these events, “kids get engaged with trying new things, and then they see them on the salad bar and are familiar with them.”

Along with the “Fear Factor” events, Director Phillips continues to engage the school community by incorporating tons of locally sourced produce into their bars. Proud of their commitment to local farmers, last year alone the district procured 78,000 lbs of fresh produce exclusively from California. Currently, the district is in the process of creating a large banner with the state of California on it that will have markers to show the location of each farm that provides produce to the district. Director Phillips believes that the students are more excited about eating off the salad bar when they have a visual of where the produce came from, and this banner will be a testament to the locality of VSDU’s procurement.

This commitment to local produce and engaging students continues to have a significant impact on VUSD’s salad bar program. Phillips admits that he can be “a little competitive” and does want to be a leader in certain areas of school food. This explains why VUSD is hiring a part-time driver and purchasing a truck to deliver fresh produce to all school sites, as local farmers cannot always deliver to so many locations. For Director Phillips, having produce in the schools without chemicals and waxes is worth the extra labor, and we couldn’t agree more!

Along with the procurement of California produce, VUSD has found a way to get even more local by incorporating produce grown in their school gardens into the salad bars. One of Phillip’s favorite memories regarding salad bars at VUSD is when he worked with a K-6 teacher who taught Aeroponics, or the growing of plants without the use of soil. Phillips recalls students in the class cutting and washing the lettuce they grew, then watching its incorporation into the salad bar. He says the kids were very enthusiastic about heading to lunch knowing that they’d get to consume the fruits (or in this case, lettuces) of their labors off their school salad bars.

With a little commitment and creativity, Vista Unified School District is bridging the gap between students and their food sources, resulting in more successes at the salad bar.