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 “Free” School Lunch: Free-Range, Hormone-Free and Antibiotic-Free

​San Diego Unified School District opened its school cafeterias this year with some exciting progress being cooked up in Food Services.  Starting in 2013, students attending schools within the eighth largest school district in the nation were given the option to enjoy some of the highest-quality chicken on the market—without increasing the price of school meals.  

Gary Petill, Food Services Director at San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) leads a small team with a mighty vision for school food. He and colleagues like district Food Service Acquisition and Production Manager, Fred Espinosa and Registered Dietitian, Jessica Keene have spent the past two years partnering with other like-minded school food service staff and stakeholders that envision high-quality, minimally-processed, healthy school meals.  Through the National Procurement Initiative, Petill and his team connected with other school districts interested in improving the system through which students are fed at school.  

Efforts to change the way schools and other meal-serving institutions buy the food they serve is a way to ensure more control in the quality of products.  This is particularly important to Petill and his team as an avenue for improving the nutrition of the meals served to kids in school. Through a Community Transformation Grant funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and administered through Healthy Works, an initiative of the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency, programs like this were established to make it easier for schools in the district to purchase, prepare and serve whole foods that are lower in sodium and produced closer to home.  These efforts support the County of San Diego’s Live Well San Diego​ long-term initiative to create healthy, safe and thriving communities. 

It all started when Petill connected with Whole Foods about the possibility of sourcing Mary’s Chicken—a company based in Fresno, California which provides hormone-free, antibiotic-free, free-range poultry products.  Mary’s chickens are produced by Pitman Family Farms.   The challenge that Petill and his team had to solve was how they could manage the cost of a higher quality product without a higher budget. The solution was simple: serve students drumsticks, which are less expensive than white meat and other chicken parts, and less of a priority for food retailers such as Whole Foods and restaurants.

There are currently 27 schools within the district serving Mary’s Chicken.  Each month, the number of schools able to provide the product in school meals is growing.  

San Diego Unified enjoys the title of being the first school district in the state—and country—to source from Mary’s.  The Food Services Department is planning for the infrastructure changes that come with fresh, high quality food.  This involves making changes to the 19 prep kitchens which provide the districts’ 200 cafeterias with the food they need for school meals.  

Petill explained that they have the supply, and now they just have to build skills into the workforce to successfully meet the demand. A kitchen that is ready for fresh and raw food preparation also requires staff to match; Petill indicated that SDUSD food services staff is receiving the training they need to safely prepare raw ingredients so that they are transformed into healthy, hot meals.

This success is about more than just chicken.  SDUSD food services and other districts participating in the National Procurement Initiative know that the size of their demand can change the entire food system.  Schools, hospitals and other meal-serving institutions are meeting large demands, thus requiring large supply.  The more the demand shifts for whole, healthful foods that are minimally processed, raised or grown regionally and done so in an environmentally conscious way, the more power the suppliers have to make this a reality to transform the system.
“We’re looking to change the whole food system,” said Espinosa.

Teams like Petill’s have gained so much momentum through coordinated efforts like the National Procurement Initiative that conversations are actually taking place with the United States Department of Agriculture to offer antibiotic-free or minimal-use antibiotic chicken strips specifically for school foods.  

San Diego’s largest school district is making significant strides in improving access to healthy, wholesome foods for students that could eventually transform our nation’s entire food system in schools, and even beyond. Programs like the Community Transformation Grant catalyze these efforts by providing vision, support and a framework for future improvements.