Rebecca Rodriguez, Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s Farm to School Manager

By Jiyoon Chon, NFSN Communications Manager

In Cleveland, Ohio, farm to school is taking root and a community of remarkable individuals are sowing the seeds of change. 

National Farm to School Network interviewed Rebecca Rodriguez, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s Farm to School Manager, who enthusiastically shared the farm to school programming that has been taking shape and expanding across schools throughout Cleveland. Though she's been in her role for just three months, her vision and dedication to transform how kids eat are already making a profound impact.

At the core of Rebecca's mission is a commitment to deepen children’s knowledge and relationship with food. What drives her passion? It's moments like the one she recently experienced during a cafeteria taste test. A curious little student approached her and asked, "Have you ever tried a green hot dog?" After a brief pause, Rebecca realized the child was referring to a cucumber. That was a reminder that sometimes we take basic food knowledge for granted, such as knowing what a celery or a cucumber is. For the young children who are just forming their relationships with food, farm to school activities like gardening, taste tests, and nutrition education in the classroom are especially influential. 

Cleveland is a predominantly industrious, lower-income city—Rebecca and her team are determined to prove that even with this backdrop, fresh, local, and great-tasting produce is not out of reach. Education is the cornerstone of their approach, and they have a growing community of local partners working alongside them.

Rebecca's passion is mirrored by Bob Gorman, the school district’s Executive Director of School Nutrition. Together, they're leading a range of activities to bring the benefits of farm to school to the forefront.

Mural painted by students showing what "Food is Medicine" means

Their initiatives include 11 school gardens, 2 hoop houses, and an indoor garden at one high school, all developed in partnership with FoodStrong. The gardens are paired with a curriculum that educates students about nutrition. This year's themes, "Food is Medicine," “Eating the Rainbow,” and “Lifecycle of the Farm” explore concepts like harvesting and the ecosystem, along with how fresh produce fuels our bodies through components like Vitamin C and fiber.

Through the school gardens, students are growing their own food, from kale to beets and sugar snap peas. They also learn about different ways to prepare the produce and practice knife skills through fun cooking lessons—Thai kohlrabi salad, hand-rolled veggie sushi, zucchini latkes, homemade apple cider and fresh salsa were some favorites! Students also participate in building hoop houses around the raised beds come wintertime, as Cleveland is known for brutally cold winters. These hands-on experiences connect students with the vibrant world of agriculture and nutrition. By participating in caring for the garden through the seasons, they also learn important lessons in sustainability and climate resilience. 

Students participate in maintaining raised beds in school gardens

Additionally, 17 soon-to-be 20 fruit and veggie bars are transforming lunch lines, allowing students to try new fruits and veggies while still having the power to choose what’s on their plate. All the other schools still serve fresh fruits and vegetables, offering them in little “veggie boats"—Rebecca says it’s their goal to eventually have the fruit and veggie bars available at all 87 schools in their district. 

Procurement of local food from small farmers is also a big focus for the Cleveland school district—they are currently partnering with a local distributor, What Chefs Want, to connect with BIPOC farmers in the area. This collaboration allows them to source items such as sungold cherry tomatoes, apples, peaches, nectarines, and watermelons, directly from small-scale producers.

Their partnership with What Chefs Want also extends to a fresh fruit and veggie snack program at 8 schools. Students receive fresh snacks twice a week, along with nutrition education. Items like dragon fruit, kiwi, and rainbow carrots introduce children to new and exciting flavors. 

Sungold cherry tomato tasting in the cafeteria!

Bob and Rebecca manage a handful of other community partnerships that further enrich the school district’s farm to school programming. In partnership with Feed Our Future, they offer a monthly featured produce program, complete with tastings and educational materials. During these monthly tastings, Rebecca and other educators walk around and talk with students, with three buckets and ping pong balls. Students get to put them in the “loved it,” “liked it,” or “not for me” buckets. “The fun part is talking with the students on why they chose the bucket they did,” says Rebecca. “For example, when we were tasting Sungold cherry tomatoes, one student didn’t want to try it because they said tomatoes were sour and squishy. I told them these were special from the sun, and were crunchy and sweet. They ended up loving it!” 

Freshly prepared cobb salad, a student favorite!

The school district also partners with Americorps and nearby Baldwin Wallace University to bring interns who help with the taste tests, garden activities, and the fresh fruit and veggie snack program! This past summer, the team partnered with Case Western University’s student garden to provide 60 bags of produce each week to families, along with a simple infographic that showed what was being sent home, what it looks like in the garden, and a simple recipe. This was a great way to engage parents and the wider community in farm to school. 

So far, the feedback from families, parents, and principals has been overwhelmingly positive. As a relatively new concept in Cleveland, farm to school has been met with enthusiasm and support. During a recent meeting with school principals, Bob gave a presentation introducing the concept of farm to school. At the end of the presentation he was met with a standing ovation, underscoring the community's desire for this positive change.

As part of this growth of farm to school and the transition to more scratch cooking, Rebecca mentions that she’s incredibly thankful to the kitchen staff who make this possible. “I always tell my kitchen staff that they are my frontline and have such an impact on the kids. Even their simple interactions with students in the lunch line, like asking, ‘Why don’t you try this apple? It’s super crunchy and good for you!’ can have a positive lasting impact. Making sure they know how important they are and supporting and thanking them goes a long way.” 

Guests from USDA and the Ohio Department of Education joins for CMSD's Farm to School Month event

As Farm to School Month is in full swing, Rebecca and her team recently hosted a two-day event with members of the USDA, Ohio Department of Education, and FoodCorps, who all got to take part in an apple crunch event supplied by Bauman Orchards at Almira Elementary School. It was followed by a cooking demonstration at Food Strong’s learning garden. On day 2 of the event, they hosted a space where school district representatives, distributors, farmers, and food producers had the opportunity to network and ask questions to their state representatives. It was a successful event that brought together the community to celebrate their progress on serving students the best of the best. 

As Bob reflects, "When I took this position, I recognized the dire need to change the way children eat. My staff and I are on a mission to shift how our community connects where their food comes from. CMSD is proud to lead the charge in bringing Farm to School practices to Northeast Ohio, and we are excited for what the future holds!"