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Food for thought: New group hopes to offer nutrition to Nevada County students

The goal is to feed thousands of students with locally sourced food.

Brett McFadden, superintendent of the Nevada Joint Union High School District, along with the nonprofit Sierra Harvest, have created a Joint Powers Authority. The unprecedented collaboration is meant to provide nutritious food to the school district’s kids.

“All that we did was basically form the shell of a governance structure for this potential idea,” McFadden said. “A lot still needs to happen to see if this idea can come to fruition, but we wanted to establish a formal entity in order that we can be eligible for state and federal grant funding — and to establish a structure by which we can initiate an in-depth analysis in planning for this possibility.”

Sierra Harvest Executive Director Aimee Retzler said she has been laying the groundwork for years. Retzler finished the food assessment for western Nevada County in November and completed a feasibility study in January.

Retzler said Sierra Harvest has been operating a farm-to-school program for about 13 years with the help of the Chef Ann Foundation. The idea is that the successful formation of a local authority could yield a pilot program that could be used by schools in rural areas across the country.

Once the authority is formed, Retzler said it will begin to address facilities, finances, new hires and food.

If funding is secured, McFadden said the authority would not be up and running for another two years.

Retzler said the assessment conducted earlier this year revealed that without the formation of a nutrition services authority, meeting students’ nutrition needs with local options would not be possible.

“Food should be centrally prepared and delivered cold via refrigerated truck the day before service in a bulk format for finishing on site and bulk-style service,” Retzler said, adding they’d need a new financial standard and procedure using the latest food service technology. Retzler said the project will require hiring an executive director with a commitment to scratch cooking, as well as an executive chef to help create standardized recipes, cycle menus and add a salad bar to every campus.

McFadden said he and Retzler have written to the state and are waiting to hear back for final approval, but he does not see why they would not be approved.


The school districts united their resources to create the Nevada County School Transportation Agency, McFadden said.

Stakeholders from schools in Grass Valley, Penn Valley, Pleasant Ridge and Nevada City formed an authority to provide school transportation services to students, collectively.

“By doing that, you’re able to consolidate resources and economies of scale so you can have a more efficient allocation of those services or set of resources,“ McFadden said. ”We’re all too small of districts to operate our own transportation departments.“

By uniting forces to contract a single service required at various locations in this county — transportation, for instance, offered by Durham School Services — McFadden said they save administrators time, energy and money.

“It’s a national company — they have the buses, the training, the staffing, the infrastructure to provide the services, so we don’t have to do that on our own,” McFadden explained, adding, “so we can be more effective with taxpayers’ dollars.”

Now, McFadden said, all the school districts in the area but Twin Ridges are thinking of consolidating nutrition services the same way — to optimize what and how students eat.

“This is not an indictment on our current food services departments in anyway. They’re very good,” McFadden said. “What we’d like to explore is: do we have the possibility of saving taxpayer dollars while at the same time expanding and improving more on the nutritional quality we are offering to our students?”

McFadden said purchasing food commodities for 8,000 students as opposed to 2,000 will likely be cheaper per item.

The authority will allow local districts to pool together resources and use taxpayers’ money more effectively. A similar authority has been used in Santa Clarita for the last 25 years.

McFadden said Twin Ridges Elementary School District is small and so far removed, geographically, that it didn’’t make sense for them to participate.

McFadden said the authority has capacity for Twin Ridges to join once operations are running smoothly.

The next step, for now, and the reason for submitting the authority proposal to the state before June 30, was to secure grant and private sector funding to make the adoption of new nutrition policies without impacting school district budgets and school personnel.

Retzler raised over $200,000 for “a full-blown study” that indicates an authority “is extremely feasible and would have an enormous benefit on students and families in Nevada County,“ McFadden said.

McFadden said it may not be possible to pull off the project in the end, but at least the districts will have the opportunity to see if it works — even if they are still two years away.

Superintendent of Schools Scott Lay said in April that schools have been working with Sierra Harvest for the last 10 years.

“The timing wasn’t right,” Lay said. “The timing is right right now. We’re one year behind where we thought we would be. We discussed this in February 2020 and then COVID hit and we put this on hold — luckily, we didn’t kill it.”

Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at roneil@theunion.com

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