Cal Poly Creamery and the San Luis Coastal Unified School District

A partnership between the Cal Poly Creamery and the second largest school district in San Luis Obispo County is providing farm-to-table staples, such as cheese and eggs, to families who may be struggling in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Each week the San Luis Coastal Unified School District provides a free meal kit to more than 1,800 students, filling a needed void for many families who have encountered unforeseen challenges since the onset of the pandemic. The school district shifted its weekly meal kit from prepared meals to a pantry box, with Cal Poly student-produced foods front and center.

The partnership is a win for both Cal Poly and the school district, aiding student success by providing more campus jobs for Cal Poly students interested in dairy production, food science and nutrition. Students gain real-world experience while providing needed, nutritious foods to thousands of families living in San Luis Obispo County.

Craig Russell, who oversees Cal Poly’s dairy operations, said the partnership is also rewarding in unconventional ways, allowing college students to contribute to the greater good of society while demonstrating their commitment to furthering their education. The Cal Poly Creamery also recently donated more than 240 packages of cheese to the Cal Poly Food Pantry. “These students are now putting their products out to younger people from kindergarten through high school and showing them the potential of what they too can learn in college if they choose to," Russell said.

Creating a Path Forward

The journey from the onset of the pandemic to now has involved continual pivoting to adjust and continue operations. For Russell that meant ensuring that daily operations of the Cal Poly Dairy continued with fewer students and that Learn by Doing opportunities remained available. For Erin Primer, director of food and nutrition services at San Luis Coastal Unified School District, it meant rethinking how school-aged children were fed.

“I will forever remember March 13, 2020, as the day that K-12 schools shut down,” said Primer. “We knew that we needed to find a way to continue to feed kids, and it has been interesting to learn how to do the same types of things we had done in the past in a very new way." The monthslong process has reinforced Primer’s ultimate goal of building a healthy meal plan that incorporates plant-forward foods with an emphasis on farm-to-table education. Primer has partnered with more than a dozen local producers to provide key ingredients, such as locally sourced grains and produce.

The new partnership with Cal Poly will add cheese, eggs and ultimately, milk to the list.

“We are abundantly lucky to have people who produce incredible products and who are willing to partner with schools,” Primer said. “If we expose children to good, high-quality, delicious foods, they will learn to seek those out. These kids are the consumers of tomorrow, and as they grow to value local food systems, they will eventually go out and buy those products themselves.”

The school lunch boxes, subsidized by the Department of Agriculture, are provided free to any student who is 18 years or younger, regardless of the school they attend. An assortment of items have been provided, including cooked entrées, fruit, juice, milk and snacks such as sunflower seeds, cereal bars and crackers. Since March, more than 500,000 meals have been provided to the community.

Primer said it was kismet that brought Cal Poly and the school district together. During a virtual cooking class held over the summer, a student asked where the district sourced its milk. That student was Russell’s daughter. Primer and Russell connected, and in December, the first shipment of more than 1,500 blocks of cheese and an equal number of eggs was transported from the Cal Poly Creamery to the school district.

“We got connected in a way that would not have existed without the pandemic,” said Primer. “We share a vision of what farm-to-school looks like, and we are now making that happen.”

The new pantry boxes, which will continue through June, will include staples needed for a week’s worth of meals, such as bread, eggs, cheese and produce. The partnership with Cal Poly will continue beyond that. “This is really more than what is for lunch today,” said Primer. “This is about how we build respect into the food system and how we cultivate food for tomorrow. If we tell the story of how something got to the plate, kids are more inclined to enjoy it.”


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