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San Diego Students Learn to "Eat the Rainbow"

Nutrition Education

Photo Credit: Robin Marie, Ocean Beach Elementary


Ask your elementary schoolers if they’ve heard of “Eat the Rainbow” and chances are, they have. Implemented at elementary schools across the San Diego Unified School District, this initiative teaches students the importance of eating fruits and vegetables and encourages them to make healthy food choices in the school cafe.


The program is spearheaded by Janelle Manzano, the district’s Farm to School Program Specialist. Throughout the year, her team of FoodCorps Service Members visit schools where they teach students about gardening and nutrition. 


Students learn why it’s important to eat colorful fruits and vegetables and are shown that this produce can be found at the salad bar in their school cafe. Students are shown how to make colorful rainbow salads as part of an “Eat the Rainbow” demonstration. 


Manzano stresses the importance of bridging the gap between her lessons and students’ food choices. “It’s so important to guide the students,” said Manzano. “If you’re not making those precise connections they won’t think anything of the lesson.” 


Teaching students to be more mindful of what they put on their plates could be as simple as showing them they can add lettuce to a hamburger, said Manzano. These lessons place the cafe salad bar in a new light. 

This past fall, Manzano learned from some of her FoodCorps service members that a group of students discovered they could mix different types of salad dressing. Instead of just reaching for the ranch dressing, a longtime favorite among elementary schoolers, students started mixing Italian dressing with the ranch. 

“The students were kind of mindblown,” said Manzano. “They were telling their friends to try it too.” Now, cafeteria staff find themselves filling the Italian dressing more often.  

classTeacher support is essential for the program, Manzano said. When teachers participate, sample food, and serve themselves a salad, students are encouraged to do the same. Manzano said she also equips her FoodCorps service members to answer any questions teachers may have about nutrition. 


It’s also important that teachers treat cafe fruits and vegetables with the same enthusiasm as produce grown in school gardens, said Manzano. She remembers leading a gardening class in which a teacher praised a carrot grown at the school and commented that it was much better than the ones available in the school cafeteria. 

“I had to talk with the garden teacher and explain that our salad bar produce is fantastic - nearly as fresh as the school garden’s - and that teachers are valuable partners with the nutrition team to encourage students to eat more fruits & veggies,” said Manzano. “Not all students have carrots growing in their backyards, so they rely on the school cafe to provide them with healthy produce.” 

Students are not only encouraged to make healthy choices, but they also learn about how these choices impact their health and well-being. When students reach for their cereal in the morning, for instance, they now understand that it’s packed with fiber and carbs, which will keep them full and give them energy, said Mazano. The students can win prizes and are encouraged to follow the program on Instagram, where they can see videos of cafe tours. 

Manzano’s lessons are not limited to elementary schools, as she also visits with middle and high schools, adding a deeper component of nutrition education to the mix. Those components also include discussions of sports nutrition and sustainable food systems, and she also engages in questions about the specifics of the school food program.