SDSpeaks: Q&A with Janelle Manzano, San Diego Unified Farm to School Specialist

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Janelle Manzano

San Diego Unified Farm to School Specialist

Hi there! Okay, first & foremost, let’s start with your story. What do you do and how did you get there?

Hi! My name is Janelle Manzano. I come from the Bay Area and just moved to San Diego last summer. I moved here for my job - I work with San Diego Unified Schools as the Farm to School Program Specialist in the Food and Nutrition Department.

I’ve always been interested in food. There’s this Filipino Folk Song my dad and I would sing in the kitchen while I helped him cook. The song is called “Bahay Kubo.” It sings about a small island hut with a garden that grows all the essential Filipino crops such as garlic, ginger, eggplant, bitter melon, peanuts and more. Then we’d go to the grocery market and he would tell me the different ways each fruit and vegetable can help me be healthy.

Pinakbet   :  Filipino tomato based dish which consists of okra, bitter melon, and calabasa squash.

Pinakbet: Filipino tomato based dish which consists of okra, bitter melon, and calabasa squash.

Flash forward to college - I decided to study nutrition. I received my B.S in Clinical Nutrition from UC Davis in 2017. While I studied how foods interact with our bodies health, I was also exposed to how food is grown. (UCD is a very ag-oriented school.) I was drawn by the fields, orchards, and gardens that surrounded my university. I even participated in an internship called “Kids in the Garden” which truly began my interest in preventive health through educating young students. We invited students throughout the county to come visit UCD’s educational garden. I not only got teach about nutrition, but also how to plant seeds so that they can grow healthy food on their own.

I gained this newfound interest of educating communities about food and farming. So, after graduation, I signed up to do a service year with FoodCorps. FoodCorps is branch of AmeriCorps that focuses on nutrition and garden education. I served in Oakland, CA for one year being an educator and managing two school gardens.

Now, I feel so humbled and lucky to be where I am today. I have connected with such supportive people in my work teams, with other fellow garden/health educators, and the different communities throughout the city.

What has been your greatest accomplishment so far in your journey?

Not so much as my greatest accomplishment, but one of my most favorite memories that reminds me why I do what I do is something that happened during my second week at one of my schools in Oakland during my service year. There was this first grader who claimed he was always hungry and constantly looking for a snack. He’d come to the garden and look for something to eat. He tried fresh out-of-the-ground radishes and snap peas off the vine; both for the first time. Radishes he didn’t like so much, but the snap peas he loved. One day I brought him a peach as a treat because he had mentioned he never had one. He took the fruit in both hands and took a big, adventurous bite. Juice was coming out of his mouth and his eyes looked up at me with delight. Watching him try all these new fruits and vegetables and experiencing it with him is one of the best accomplishments for me.

Have you had to overcome any roadblocks along the way?

Probably the biggest roadblock I have encountered is the quick ability to feel “at home” in a new place. Again, I’ve went from my university’s small-town of Davis, to the urban city of Oakland, and now I’m here serving the large sprawl of San Diego. I have found that the first year of being at any of these places were and have been tough transitions.

Restarting again this past year, has honestly been both great and but at times lonely as well - which is difficult when you work with such a large amount of the community! Head strong, I know it will take time, it always does. I do have to say though, that I am glad to have encountered SlowFood for helping me boost this journey of like-minded foodies in this awesome city.

SlowFood strives for “Good. Clean. Fair.” foods. Why are these things important to you? Or choose one that is the most important for you.

I’d say Good food is the most important to me. I believe so much that there there is an art in cooking and in eating together with others. Cooking, because of the diversity of flavors and cultures - all fusing together to excite your taste buds. Then there’s the sense of kinship of sharing a meal together that makes the moment more memorable and at times even more delicious. Right now, my favorite thing is practicing how to cook mom and dad’s Filipino dishes, then introducing and sharing the dishes with friends.

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Choose one of our SlowFood Urban San Diego Pillars (Engage. Enrich. Empower.) that your work relates to the most and why.

I believe my work right now most relates to the pillar of Engagement. One of the main things I do is nutrition education with students. My biggest goal when I teach is to just get students interested and more appreciative of food. San Diego Unified is a leader in Farm to School programming in the whole nation. As awesome as that sounds, our students don’t realize that we consistently serve them local, seasonal produce every day or that we try to meet their trends such as putting chicken and waffles or even a “build-your-own” ramen bar on the menu.

Through engaging them in the conversation, I hope that I am planting the seeds of curiosity that will one day lead to them asking more questions about the relationship between food and health. Or even just encouraging them to try the new food items we have in the cafeteria!

To learn more about San Diego Unified’s Farm to School program check out our social media pages @sdfarmtoschool. (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram)