Unsung Santa Cruz: Pajaro Valley High School seniors bring local, organic salads to their school

Karla Leyva poses with an organic salad prepared by student volunteers at Pajaro Valley High School on Oct. 18, 2022.
Karla Leyva poses with an organic salad prepared by student volunteers at Pajaro Valley High School on Oct. 18, 2022.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Local )

Pajaro Valley High School senior Karla Breanna Leyva remembers visiting Esperanza Community Farms for the first time last fall and how it impacted her.

“I just remember thinking that it was such a different experience than the one that I’ve usually had with agriculture,” she said. “When I saw it, I just thought it was really cool.”

Leyva, 17, lives in Castroville but because her mom teaches in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, she grew up going to schools in the district. On their drives to school, she would see farmers who, just like her grandparents, were working long hours to meet daily harvest goals. Her grandfather still harvests cabbage and lettuce and often tells her and her cousins about the struggles farmworkers face.

But, at Esperanza Community Farms, she was invited to pick vegetables and take them home, rather than picking them for the farm to sell. Being at the farm gave Leyva a new impression of farming and encouraged her to help her fellow classmates at Pajaro Valley High School see it with a new perspective as well – that farming, while difficult, could also be healthy and fulfilling.

It was at that visit, part of an internship with Watsonville Wetlands Watch, that Leyva and her classmate Jesus Basulto Morales, 17, proposed bringing produce from the farm to their school lunches. The idea eventually became the Farm 2 Cafeteria project, which uses organic produce from local farms to create hundreds of salads for the high school students.

Jesus Basulto poses with salads prepared by student volunteers at Pajaro Valley High School on Oct. 18, 2022.
Jesus Basulto poses with salads prepared by student volunteers at Pajaro Valley High School on Oct. 18, 2022.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Local)

“It felt kind of perfect,” said Leyva. “I realized the emotions that I had with [local, organic farming] was something that I wanted to bring to our school.”

So from fall 2021 through this past spring, Leyva and Morales met on a weekly basis, talking over goals and logistics for the project with the support of Mireya Gomez-Contreras, co-leader of Esperanza Community Farms. Gomez-Contreras said the school administrators suggested they start the project during summer school as a pilot.

After piloting the Farm 2 Cafeteria project during summer school – when they served 400 salads over four weeks – Leyva and Morales expanded and continued the project through November. In addition to Leyva and Morales, who were project leaders, about 20 other students participated in harvesting and chopping the vegetables.

Gomez-Contreras said the farm, located next to Pajaro Valley High School and Watsonville Wetlands Watch, entered into an agreement last month with Pajaro Valley Unified School District, which will provide $15,000 to continue the program. Funds from a local philanthropist and a grant from No Kid Hungry California have supported the project over this past year.

Gomez-Contreras said that even prior to Levya and Morales’ visit about a year ago, students who had visited the farm had also raised the question of how they could get local and organic produce in their cafeteria. But it was with Leyva and Morales that the idea became reality.

“It’s about social change,” said Gomez-Contreras. “This small-scale vision was absolutely the vision of the students.”

Leyva and Morales have seen that change first-hand by the reactions of their classmates. On the first day of the summer pilot, after they spent hours harvesting, chopping and preparing the salads, Leyva and Morales didn’t know how students would react to the salads. They were nervous the students wouldn’t eat them.

Still, Leyva and Morales introduced the students to the new colorful salads – full of strawberries, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, spinach, lettuce and carrots – and encouraged them to try one.

Farm 2 Cafeteria volunteers prepare salads at Pajaro Valley High School, on October 18, 2022.
Farm 2 Cafeteria volunteers prepare salads at Pajaro Valley High School, on October 18, 2022.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Local )

Many students avoided the salads at first, but later came back to inspect them and gradually picked them up when it appeared their peers weren’t watching them, Leyva and Morales recalled as they laughed.

“Then the next time they came by, they took it on their own,” said Morales. “It felt good – like giving back to the community, to my peers.”

Over the past several months, Leyva and Morales said they had to cut in line to make sure they got salads because they became so popular.

“I feel a lot of pride for Jesus and I – that summer was hard work,” said Leyva. “And I just remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, it’s so weird, but cool that [the students] are actually buying into this.”

Morales said he often sees the salads running out before everyone who wants one is able to get one.

Gomez-Contreras said with the new agreement and funding with the district they’ll be able to serve more salads but precise details are still being worked out. Students interested in leading and participating in the project in the spring can apply in February and the program will run from March to November.

During the regular academic year, the students no longer harvested the produce themselves but a group of them continued to chop and prepare the salads during their free periods before lunch. They also switched their vendors from Esperanza Community Farms to 9 Organic Farmers Co-op – whose workers also delivered the produce to the school. The co-op has about 25 acres of farmland spread out in the Pajaro and Salinas valleys.

Initially, Gomez-Contreras didn’t have student interns in mind as part of the goals of Esperanza Community Farms. But the students came knocking. At Esperanza Community Farms, founded in 2017, she leads a team of volunteers that provides bi-weekly boxes of produce to 115 low-income families in the Pajaro Valley through a subsidized Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. With three acres and a volunteer team of about 20, they plant, harvest and deliver the produce to families directly to their homes.

Gomez-Contreras is proud of the school salad program – how it changed and challenged a system that previously didn’t have local, organic produce.

“Farm 2 Cafeteria addresses systems: we want to be able to bring fresh, local vegetables to the students because it makes sense,” she said. “I’m finding that as we really strengthen our relationship with the school district and understand all of the regulations they have to follow to feed all the students…we’re bringing the right people to the table to think together about how to simply bring local fresh produce as much as possible.”

Nathan Carbajal, Ventura Corrales and Denia Escutia cut vegetables in Watsonville on Oct. 18, 2022.
Nathan Carbajal, Ventura Corrales and Denia Escutia cut vegetables for an organic salad at Pajaro Valley High School in Watsonville on Oct. 18, 2022.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Local )

County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah said programs and projects like Farm 2 Cafeteria that get students working with gardens and soil, teach them about nutrition and bring organic food to their tables have a number of benefits emotionally and academically.

“We see it kind of as a multi-level aspect of the student’s education,” he said. “And right now especially with all the challenges we’re facing with social emotional well being for students, we see this as one of those therapeutic spaces where students can really slow things down and be very present.”

The Farm 2 Cafeteria program has had some other surprises for the students who started it. Morales said it helped him appreciate the joy of eating fresh vegetables. “I was never much of a salad guy until this program,” he said.


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