From tree to tray, SoCal’s farm-to-school movement is growing


Baldy View Elementary School student Dessilouu Padilla is all smiles when she learns her orange was grown on a nearby farm. Photo by Arielle Torrez.

From the spot where Anna Knight stands at the dusty edge of a Moreno Valley watermelon patch, you can almost see a school full of kids who will soon eat the fruit.

“Do you see that second little hill towards the right?” Knight asks, pointing to a scraggly hillside on the horizon, past Highway 60. “The base of that hill is Moreno Valley Unified School District. You can practically see the building where they're going to go.”

Knight is a fifth-generation farmer from Redlands, once the home of Southern California’s booming citrus industry. Her family sells the produce they grow to nearby schools, and they help other small farmers in the Inland Empire – like the one who owns this watermelon field – do the same. 

The Knights are at the heart of a growing farm-to-school movement, a statewide effort to get more fresh, local produce onto kids’ lunch trays and connect them with food-based learning opportunities in classrooms and school gardens. 

The farm-to-school movement in California dates back decades, but it’s been recently revitalized by $60 million in grants in 2023, which coincides with a pandemic-era legislative change that made school meals free to all public school children, regardless of family income.

In Upland, Baldy View Elementary Schoolers line up for tacos and local watermelon grown in the Inland Empire. Photo by Arielle Torrez.

For small agricultural producers like Sunny Park, who grows the watermelons Anna Knight sells to local school districts, contracts with local schools can be a lifeline. 

Park, 68, tends to his watermelons for about 90 days before harvesting them from the vines himself. He says 70% of his last harvest went to local schools, a share that has grown over the last three years. 

Moreno Valley watermelon farmer Sunny Park sells his produce to nearby school districts, including Upland Unified. Photo by Arielle Torrez.

Park is one of 20 small farmers in the Inland Empire who work with Knight’s farm hub, Old Grove Orange, to serve 35 school districts in the area. 

“These 35 districts represent 1.5 million kids, and we're not talking about just one order here and there. We're talking about on a weekly basis,” says Knight. “Those weekly orders are what makes such a difference to farmers, it becomes an income stream that they can rely on.”

The pipeline from field to cafeteria benefits kids too.  Fruit that’s picked and delivered at peak ripeness is also healthier than produce you buy from the average supermarket.

Farm-to-school deliveries move fast. 

In Moreno Valley, the Knights pick up whole melons directly from Park’s farm, then take them to a nearby commercial kitchen where they are sliced and bagged. They spend one night in the Knight’s Redlands packinghouse and then next morning, before the sun has even risen, the Knights loads the pallets of fruit onto a white delivery truck, headed for local schools. 

“If you were to pick an orange from a supermarket, that orange took five weeks to get to you. It was picked in South America, taken to a packing house, waxed, its box was fumigated, and gassed. It got put on a ship,” Knight says. “But the oranges that we have in this truck were picked yesterday, were sliced yesterday. That is peak flavor and peak nutrition.”

KCRW reporting can verify that farmer Sunny Park’s Korean seedless watermelon are sweet and crisp. Photo by Arielle Torrez.

On a recent Tuesday, the truck makes its first stop at Baldy View Elementary School in Upland, where Upland Unified School District nutrition services director Ksenia Glenn waits to greet the delivery wearing a pair of watermelon earrings. 

When Anna Knight’s dad, farmer Bob Knight, arrives with the real thing, she begins to marvel: “Just the dietitian in me, you know – my soul sings a little bit.” 

Glenn, who grew up in Russia, has been passionate about bringing local, farm-fresh produce to schools since she tried her first tomato in the United States.

“I'm like, oh … it doesn't smell like a tomato,” she says. She found better ones at local farmers markets, then wondered, “How do I bring it to the schools?”

It wasn’t easy. For one thing, Glenn says purchasing farm-fresh produce is more expensive than bulk imports. Schools also can’t get out-of-season produce, like local watermelons or tomatoes, in January, which is something school staff and students are still getting used to.

Plus, the challenges of coordinating farm-to-school produce deliveries directly with small farmers are enormous. The Knights serve as a farm hub, connecting schools with the farmers, organizing the communication, payment, and delivery. 

“That’s such a blessing to us as a school district,” Glenn says. “Instead of six invoices, we have one.”

Glenn says almost half of the produce served on lunch trays in Upland Unified was grown on a local farm last school year, and she expects the proportion to be higher this year.

On the school lunch menu this day: taco bar, plus Korean seedless watermelon from Sunny Park’s farm in Moreno Valley.

As soon as lunch begins, elementary schoolers descend upon the taco bar. Shredded cheese and lettuce start flying, and so does the fruit.

Second grader Dessilouu Padilla piles three oranges onto her plate and appears thrilled to learn where they came from. “The farm?” she exclaims. “So cool!”