A pumpkin changed everything…
For the past year, Barbara Jellison, the Food Service Director of the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD), has been creatively coordinating food boxes for students in need of meals amid pandemic-caused school closures. However, it wasn’t until October that she recognized the demand for whole foods (rather than prepackaged items) when turnout skyrocketed for pick up of boxes that offered whole pumpkins. After observing the momentum, she began to seek out more whole produce so families could prepare their own fresh fruit and veggies at home. “Our community has been hard hit by the pandemic and WCCUSD families are in need of support. We want to give them the healthiest food we can and knew shifting to organic was the way to do that,” Barbara said.
Soon after, Barbara sent a text to Judi Shils, Founder of Conscious Kitchen, to inquire about sourcing organic produce for all of the food boxes. The two had collaborated on a successful in-school Conscious Kitchen pilot in her district for the 2018/19 school year. If Shils could create the supply chain, Barbara was ready to purchase 10 pounds of organic produce for each of the 13,000 food boxes she and her team were packing and distributing weekly to students in the district. She asked for Shils’ help with organic suppliers and the two began their mission to shift the supply chain.
They began working closely to transition not only the produce but all the categories of food in the weekly boxes to organic, locally-sourced, and whole food products.
This program, funded by federal and state reimbursements, replaced in-school meals for the rising number of families with children under age 18 in need during the pandemic. 66.5% of WCCUSD students qualify for and rely on free-and-reduced school meals.
66.5% of WCCUSD students qualify for and rely on free-and-reduced school meals.
“Serving organic has seemed out of reach for the 20 years of my career,” Barbara said. “Then Conscious Kitchen came to our district and showed me, showed all of us, what is possible.” Barbara viewed the circumstances through a new lens, working with the local community to provide high-quality meals. She cares about her job and those she serves throughout the district, enough to take chances — and in this case, ones that deliver with great success. “With everything I do, I am always looking to improve and do things for the better.”
One thing is clear: Barbara will do anything to make sure that communities, families, and children are fed with the healthiest, highest quality food possible. “I’m in charge of making decisions and I hope that those decisions are best for the 30,000 students we serve,” she said. Under her direction, the district is providing about 2 million meals each month, almost four times the quantity during a regular school year. Since this partnership launched in November, numbers have increased from 13,000 boxes to 21,000. The WCCUSD team curates boxes for 21,000 children every week with ingredients to prepare 588,000 nourishing meals each week.
“Conscious Kitchen came to our district and showed me, showed all of us, what is possible.”
The ability to provide so many meals is only possible because of community support, as Barbara emphasized. “It’s not just one person who enables us to do what we’ve done,” she said. In addition to the Conscious Kitchen partnership and both long standing and new relations with local organic farmers, ranchers and food purveyors, countless volunteers assisted in curation and distribution of boxes. “It’s overwhelming, the help we received,” Barbara said.
No one knows what will happen when in-person learning resumes. However, this moment in time has revealed much to Barbara and her team. “The pandemic has made us realize that organic is affordable.” In many ways, the past year has allowed Barbara and the district to set a new bar in quality sourcing and nutrition. “I’m hoping that when we send out menus, [parents] will say ‘Oh, wow I am going to send my kid to school a little earlier, so that they can have breakfast with their friends because we know that the food service department supported us during a time of crisis and gave us great food.’” And just as the community has stepped up during COVID, those connections, innovations and collaborations will make all the difference in a future filled with unknowns.
The district is now providing about 2 million meals each month, almost four times the quantity during a regular school year.
“I have a newfound belief in myself and understanding of what can be done in times of crisis. I know that you can make a difference, you are strong enough to persevere, take on challenges and not back down. You can do whatever it takes,” Barbara said when asked what she had learned from the past year.
Conscious Kitchen proudly stands with Barbara, WCCUSD, local farmers and ranchers, small food businesses, organic industry, and our children — today, tomorrow and far into the future. “One person’s choice to buy organic has completely shifted our local supply chain,” says Shils, referring to Jellison’s leadership. “This partnership has shown us that we can truly shift systems and economies, care for people and planet, honor workers, and lands, address health and hunger, and change outcomes.”