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Organization strives to bring healthy, affordable options to Nevada County students

Elementary School students walk through the lunch line at Deer Creek Elementary school.
Elias Funez/efunez@theunion.com

Nearly everyone has a memory of his or her school lunches.

More often than not these memories conjure up visions of cold milk cartons neatly stacked in a box, warm dishes like mashed potatoes being served in foil trays, and pizza that was usually topped with little more than cheese.

In 2007, Aimee Retzler noticed the kids in her child’s school were leaving the lunch room early and a lot of food was ending up in the trash. It puzzled her that the children weren’t excited about their food, so she set out to do something about it.

“I thought there was a big disconnect between what appeared to be this burgeoning local food movement and there was no local food in the school meals,” said Retzler. “I thought it was a real disconnect because we live in an agricultural county.”

Start of something new

Eleven years later, Retzler is the executive director of Sierra Harvest, a nonprofit organization with a mission to educate, inspire and connect Nevada County families to fresh, local, seasonal food.

Essentially, Sierra Harvest plays matchmaker to anyone looking to procure food. It strives to help build relationships between food service directors in local institutions and connect the farmer directly to them.

Sierra Harvest is responsible for founding the Farm-to-School program which led to its involvement with local schools and their food programs.

“We are actively working with the Nevada Joint Union High School District,” said Retzler, “and they have been scratch cooking for five years. They have three kitchens they cook from: Bear River, Silver Springs and Nevada Union. But they also do lunches for NU Tech, Ghidotti and North Point Academy.”

Rapid growth

Word of Nevada Union’s successful foray into fresh school lunches spread quickly. Retzler soon received a call from Nevada City School District, essentially saying they were impressed with the food the high school was serving and would like to introduce a similar program for their 840 students.

Participation in the new school lunch program increased 106 percent last year in the Nevada City School District, Retzler said.

Nevada County superintendent of schools Scott Lay has been outspoken in his support for Sierra Harvest’s school lunch program.

“I appreciate and share Sierra Harvest’s passion to bring quality food to our classrooms,” said Lay. “I have been happy to be a partner in this process because study after study shows the value of nutritious, good tasting food for our students. From increased health to academic achievement, quality food is paramount for our students.”

Retzler said Sierra Harvest serves three primary roles within the school lunch programs, the first being procurement. Second, they have worked to implement taste testings in the schools. Keeping with their mission of providing local, organic, seasonal foods, Sierra Harvest brings kids fruits and vegetables to try.

“The third role (we serve) is branding and promotion,” Retzler said. “We helped develop the Foothills Fresh brand, and that is the brand that really signifies any type of fresh meal program where you are incorporating local, organic, seasonal ingredients. We let the Nevada City School District put that brand on their meal program last year.”

One of the hallmarks of the Farm to School program is the elimination of much packaging and waste. Instead of meals being individually wrapped, meals are served bulk-style from large trays.

According to Retzler, the cornerstone of the program is the Harvest of the Month program.

“Harvest of the Month is in over 300 classrooms in western Nevada County,” she said. “There are monthly tastings in 32 schools, and we source fresh, seasonal produce from as close to Nevada County as possible then we bring it in (to the schools).”

An example of a successful Harvest of the Month tasting Retzler provided was that of ground cherries. While not the most common fruit, Briar Patch Food Co-op recently sold out of them because kids tried them and liked them in their taste tasting.

Behind the numbers

Financially, the locally-sourced lunches seem to make sense as well.

“Schools are not taking money out of their general operating fund in order to provide fresh, local meals,” said Retzler. “That is a huge win. Last year and many previous years Nevada City School District lost money and had to take money out of their classroom funds to support the meal program, and this year they made money.”

A huge goal of the Farm to School program is to equalize food for all students. Retzler explained that Sierra Harvest is doing its best to create a local food system where everyone has access to fresh local food. They have no interest, she said, in developing a system that is only available to certain people who can afford it.

New sources

Emily’s Catering & Cakes in Grass Valley has become involved in the program as well.

The specialty food service, which is more immediately aligned with wedding cakes and reunion brunches, has devoted part of its daily operations to providing school lunches for Yuba River Charter School.

What began as a fundraising opportunity for the charter school some years ago has transformed into a daily lunch service that parents and kids can feel good about.

“The school spoke to Sierra Harvest and was trying to figure out how to get lunches and they reached out to us, and we said, yeah we’ve done it before. We’re starting our fourth year now,” said Emily’s co-owner John Arbaugh.

Arbaugh said Emily’s involvement stems from an interest in providing kids with nutritional options. They source ingredients from local farms — tomatoes from Greg’s Organics, grains from Early Bird Farms — and aspire to give kids a tasty, healthy lunch option.

Sierra Harvest’s Retzler said her organization wants people to use Sierra Harvest as a resource so they can take advantage of all the services they offer. At the end of the day, she said, they can build the health of the community, creating more equalized food programs where everyone has access to fresh, local food.

“The farmers win, the kids win, the school districts win. And we are so thrilled to be a network of support for people who want to make this change.”

Jennifer Nobles is a staff writer for The Union. She can be reached at jnobles@theunion.com or 530-477-4231.

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