How Do You Like Your Zs?

Back in April, I wrote about the potential challenges involved with serving school-garden-sourced produce with school lunch. In that post, I outlined three key guidelines that make Garden to Cafeteria work. In this post, I will share how The Z Project followed these three guidelines.

Guideline 1: Select an item to grow that has high yield, is somewhat familiar, and involves children.

We selected zucchini. Yes, zucchini. When I told community members, many of them turned their noses up, but zucchini is a known entity for a grower. It’s prolific. It’s nutritionally dense. It’s actually quite versatile. Zucchini can be baked, fried, grated, ribboned, sauteed, sliced, or–my current favorite–spiralized into “zoodles.” Despite the fact that most gardeners only grow zucchini once every five years because it is such a good bumper crop, we had a hard time reaching the 800-pound goal!

Timing and cultivation techniques were probably the greatest challenges. In the NorCal summer season, zucchini is an 8-week crop. To involve kids, you either have to plant before school gets out when school resumes in fall. Planting early means picking in July, so we opted for the latter and ended up with a growing season that did not take advantage of the longest day-lengths. In addition, each site had slightly different timing for cultivation, so the harvest was spaced out too far. In the future, I would plant twice as many plants and shorten the growing window.

Guideline 2: Involve the local health department and follow food safety regulations for small producers.

Perhaps the most impressive outcome of this pilot project was the ease with which school garden educators obtained an “Approved Source” designation, allowing them to comply local health code regulations (click here for more information). This alone is an empowering outcome because it means schools can sell their produce to the public in order to earn much-needed funds for their gardens (while also supplementing produce purchases for families).

I personally picked up a lot of zucchini from individual sites. A teacher from one site told me she makes her middle schoolers (especially the girls) wear gloves when harvesting so they don’t puncture the fruit with their fingernails (which creates a crevice for harboring bacteria). This is an impressive implementation of a best practice that I bet very few commercial producers follow. Overall, the school gardens that participated will likely be a little more mindful of food safety in the future.

Guideline 3: Plan carefully, enlist community partnerships, and develop handling systems to tackle the logisitcs.

Building community around a central problem (kids eating enough fruits and vegetables) was the most rewarding and successful part of this pilot! Two community garden plots grew a little extra zucchini for this pilot, forging a potential long-term relationship with school garden educators. Likewise, another local nonprofit recovered all the unsold zucchini from the local farmers market to supplement the harvest. You can read more about the success of the project here.

Whether you like a more traditional preparation–such as Italian zucchini parmesan casserole or Mexican calabacitas–or a modern take like this one from food writer, Janet Fletcher, zucchini has something to offer everyone. And, believe it our not, the kids do like it!

Following these garden-to-cafeteria guidelines eased the way for a motivated group of teachers, students, food service professionals, and community members. Would I do it again? Kale yeah!

The School Garden Doctor empowers teachers, schools, and communities to grow school gardens that enhance science education, nurture wellness, and foster environmental literacy.

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