When Turlock Unified School District first drafted plans for its school farm seven years ago, the ultimate goal was to provide not only an agricultural learning hub for students, but to also grow healthy foods which would one day make their way from the school farm to the cafeteria table. Now, thanks to plenty of collaboration, teamwork and hours on the farm, that dream has become a reality.
Pitman High School Culinary Arts instructor Mohini Singh, TUSD Coordinator of Environmental Studies and Applied Horticulture Hali Bream and TUSD Director of Child Nutrition Jennifer Lew-Vang have put their heads together to become the perfect trifecta of farm-to-table knowledge. The trio utilizes Bream’s knowledge of the farm, Lew-Vang’s expertise when it comes to school lunches and Singh’s dedication to teaching culinary precision to create a system that has allowed students to eat and utilize fresh ingredients at lunch and in the classroom.
Most recently, PHS Culinary Arts students have been able to utilize food boxes acquired by Lew-Vang through a United States Department of Agriculture program in order to cook meals for the class at home through distance learning. While these boxes provide a variety of dairy, protein, vegetables and other products for students to choose from, Singh, Bream and Lew-Vang have also made it a point to include products grown on the District Farm — like the pluots that made their way into a recent box, which Singh used to create a tart live on Zoom for her students at home.
Lew-Vang said she was inspired to use the USDA boxes, which are provided through the federal program to all students in need, after Singh told her she was purchasing food for students to use at home.
“I thought, ‘We don’t need to go out and purchase these items,’” Lew-Vang said. “Let’s utilize the resources we have and make the most of it. Then, we worked with Halie to get fruit from the farm for the school meal program and the culinary program. It really is a full circle of how we cooperate together.”
The products grown on the farm are also used in school lunches, which students and families have been picking up from campuses as they learn from home. Some elementary sites were able to enjoy the pluots as well, in addition to 14 other varieties of fruits grown on the District Farm. While these products aren’t the main course of meals yet, they do add a sense of fun to school meals, like the excitement on students’ faces when they realize the salsa for their burrito was made from tomatoes on the District Farm.
It is Lew-Vang’s hope that one day, Singh’s Culinary Arts students will be creating all of the school lunch menu items by using food grown on the farm. While the fruit harvest is over for now, Bream said she is hard at work changing out the greenhouse so that herbs and edible flowers can be grown for Singh’s students to use.
In addition, almonds and walnuts are grown on the farm, and it also serves as home for several pig projects — four of which are currently pregnant with litters due in just a couple of months.
In between checking in on all of the life either being grown or cared for on the farm, Bream hosts Zoom sessions for students where she teaches them about various subjects, like how a pluot is grown or how to transplant a beanstalk.
“We talk a lot about how the food gets from the farm to their school lunch, and then they’re excited to go pick up their school lunches because they know it’s a full circle,” Bream said.
Lew-Vang has collaborated with both Singh and Turlock High School teacher Linda Bajaran to provide meal kits for lower-level culinary students in the “Foods” course as well, like the individual packets of Chex mix, Rice Krispies, powdered sugar, peanut butter and chocolate that students picked up this week in order to make “puppy chow” at home. In both the Foods courses and Singh’s upper-level Culinary Arts class, students often cook live on camera via Zoom for their teachers, or they take pictures of what they’ve cooked and send them in.
“Mohini and I were originally concerned about how cooking was going to look like at home and whether or not students were going to be receptive to it,” Bajaran said. “But they’re enjoying it and they're proud of what they're making.”
The Culinary Arts students pick up their USDA boxes from Singh mid-week, then in class the next day they are partnered up and have to decide what to cook with the items they’ve been given. Then, on Fridays, they cook. This week, a box filled with melon, cheese, chicken nuggets, potatoes, milk, eggs, celery and more yielded some creative results, from breakfast tacos to chicken alfredo.
“We are kind of invading their space, so they have to be comfortable allowing us to go in their home and see their kitchen,” Singh said. “We’re not just baking brownies — it’s to really elevate that level of expertise in my students who are training to be chefs...there is so much to culinary and the farm is that key component.”
Along with Lew-Vang and Bream, Singh hopes to see both the farm and the Culinary Arts program continue to play a large role in shaping students’ diets. So far, their efforts have earned recognition from some of the state’s top officials.
Earlier this month, Singh was invited by California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross and First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom to serve as co-chair and advisor of the newly-formed California Farm to School Advisory Group. The invitation came just one year after Ross and Newsom visited TUSD to see its farm-to-table efforts firsthand.
As co-chair and advisor, Singh will help create a unified vision for the future of farm to school in California with a $10 million allocation from the state to do so. In an email from the state, Singh was told she and the Culinary Arts program were immediately brought up when CDFA began brainstorming advisors.
“I can’t wait,” Singh said. “I’m excited to see where the state wants to go with farm to school, and we are just thrilled because there is money out there and more opportunities for our district.”