Cal Poly dietary interns working with San Luis Coastal Unified School District tour Rock Front Ranch in Santa Maria where they checked out jujubes. Photos by Ky Skelton

School closures and those that have morphed into limited in-person classroom time due to the coronavirus pandemic have had an impact on more than student learning and socializing. School is also where many children receive healthy meals — in some cases their only meal of the day.

In response, the San Luis Coastal Unified School District Food Services Department stepped up to the challenge, and, after a bit of trial and error, is providing more than 30,000 meals per week to 2200 children 18 and under.

“With schools closing back in March, we pretty much tried every way you can think of serving kids when they’re not actually at school,” said Erin Primer, food services director for SLCUSD. “We did a daily meal that parents had to come and pick up but very quickly learned that that wasn’t the safest option in the midst of a pandemic, so we moved to a weekly meal kit. We’re trying to give as many days of meals at one time as is allowable by the federal and state government.”

The meal program stepped away from food packaged into individual kits and is designed to deliver a mini pantry of sorts that can be combined in creative ways to satisfy a variety of tastes.

“We want kids to really have good tasting food that is good for you,” Primer said. “It [the meal program] has really opened up the possibilities for families to know that there are so many different diets and different ways of eating. It’s so fun for kids to know that there’s a whole world beyond a red delicious apple and cheddar cheese.”

About 1 in 4 children in San Luis Obispo County are food insecure, an increase from 1 in 6 before the pandemic, Primer said.
Children are not the only ones SLCUSD wants to keep healthy — supporting area farmers is a significant goal of the meal program.
“Before the pandemic, we were all about local farms and local foods and what could we find, it was really fun,” said Primer. “As soon as the pandemic hit, we realize that a lot of these fun, farm-friends we’re going to be faced with some difficult challenges. We saw pretty quickly that we wanted to make sure that we were being intentional with our spending. We wanted it to go to as many of our local food businesses and farms as possible. If we didn’t do that, we weren’t holding true to the values that we had prior to the pandemic. These farms and food businesses may not be here for us to purchase from in the future, if we don’t purchase from them now.”

As an example of that, a relatively unknown fruit will soon show up in the take home bags.
The school district recently purchased jujubes from Alisha Taff’s Rock Front Ranch in Santa Maria where the fruit has been grown since 2014. Also known as red or Chinese date, they are an ancient, sacred, profoundly nutritious fruit originating in the Middle East and Asia.

“Being given the opportunity to share our organic jujube fruit with the students and families of the school district,” said Taff, “enriches opportunities to promote health, nutrition and educational opportunities to share information about community, food systems and how our fruit fits into the network”

SLCUSD signed on for 350 pounds of jujubes. The fruit has a rich history across the globe and is culturally relevant to many people. It has been globally studied for its health benefits. It can be eaten both fresh and dried.
“They have a very sweet taste, almost like a brown sugary kind of note,” Primer said. “I think they’d be great in baked goods. We’re actually going to try some muffin or bread items just to get some ideas on other ways to enjoy them than just in their pure form or dry form. We’ve also heard that you can make a jujube jam, so we are going to test some of that.”
Not only is the district introducing the red dates to young palates, but there is a curriculum spotlighting the fruit. Students will learn about the importance of jujubes in tandem with Chinese New Year lessons.
The fruits will be distributed in February.

“We’re really building that respect, back into our food system,” Primer said. “We’re trying to educate kids and their families and show them that asking questions about where your food comes from is really important. Having a relationship with the person who’s growing your food, really is the secret to tasting the love that they’ve put into growing it.”
The meal program is contactless and the staff practices COVID-19 safety precautions. Participants can pickup food each Wednesday at Laguna Middle School in SLO or at Morro Bay High School via a drive-thru system. Food is placed in the back of the car or trunk and folks can be on their way back home.

Families can sign up for weekly meal kits at www.slcusdfood.org. One box/bag is provided per child under 18-years-old. Currently, children do not have to be enrolled in San Luis Coastal Unified School District to participate.