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Vegetables fresh from farm to students lunch plates
George McParland Elementary students make their selections of fresh fruits and vegetables in the salad bar. Some of the fresh produce served for lunch in all of Manteca Unifieds K-12 school cafeterias come from the school farm. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

Mardie Bhelle Alcayde bit into the dark orange flesh of the apple-red, farm-fresh nectarine. Her third-grade classmates flanking her on one side of the long cafeteria table, Bryanna Cevreros and Cynthia Gonzales, were enjoying their nutritious lunch meal as well.

Bryanna chose a shiny and spotless green apple instead of the nectarine. But unlike Cynthia and Mardie Bhelle who opted for bottled water, Bryanna selected a one percent white milk to drink.

For that day last week, the third graders and the rest of the students at George McParland Elementary School had their choice of turkey and gravy with mashed potatoes and roll, chicken corndog with mashed potatoes, and peanut butter and jelly sandwich with string cheese for the entrée. The rest of the meal came from the fresh fruit and salad bar, on top of which is a large rectangular poster with the message: “Proud to serve student-grown vegetables.” The fruit choices were the colorful deep-red nectarines, green apples, and sliced oranges. The vegetable offerings for the students were lettuce and baby carrots.

The fruits come from local growers. But the vegetables served in Manteca Unified’s elementary and high school cafeterias for lunch are, for the most part, fresh produce that come literally in the school district’s back yard – a six-acre school farm that, in essence, is an outdoor extension of the classroom where agriculture students learn farming concepts that they then apply in a real working-farm setting.

How the crops get from farm to school is a whole business operation in itself. In fact, it has a name of its own. It’s called Veggie Express. Fresh produce from the farm is sold by subscription method to the schools. The Nutrition Services Department of the school district prepares the orders which are then sent to Ryan Costa who oversees the school farm.

“We pick the orders on Monday,” said Costa who has a fluctuating number of students helping out in the field. He currently has four working at the farm.

Fresh produce delivered every week from the school farm go to the warehouse, a temperature-controlled building at the school district site on West Louise Avenue at Airport Way. From there, the fresh-picked vegetables are “distributed immediately” to the various school cafeteria sites, said Sandra Amaral of the district’s Nutrition Services program.

The cafeteria salad bars serve “whatever is available” from the school farm at any given time during the school year, said Manteca Unified Director of Nutrition Services Patty Page who does not have to imagine how the farm looks like. She has a good view of the school farm from the window of her office at the district office.

This summer’s veggie fare, according to Costa, included watermelons, tomatoes, zucchini, butternut squash, bell peppers, and jalapenos.

“We’ve harvested and served some of the sweetest watermelons you have ever tasted,” Page writes on the district web site.

With summer slowly waning, Costa and his student crew are now getting ready for the cold season’s bountiful harvest.

They actually plant various kinds of crops every two to three months, which is one of the many aspects of the ag students’ hands-on farm experience. In addition to planting vegetables and personally picking the vegetables in the field every week during the school year, the students take care of the crops, irrigating them and doing general clean-up chores that come with raising vegetables.

“We’ll be planting winter crops in the next week or so,” Costa said.

Those vegetables will ensure the students will continue to enjoy farm-fresh and nutritious produce with their lunch meals during the winter months.