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‘Dinner in the Grove’ to Highlight Importance of Local Food and Farmers to Riverside Unified School District

May 1, 2015 |

Fox Farm in Riverside is the site of an upcoming Dinner in the Grove on May 16—proceeds will benefit GrowRIVERSIDE. The farm is home to numerous citrus trees. (photo courtesy of Scott Berndt)

Fox Farm in Riverside is the site of an upcoming Dinner in the Grove on May 16—proceeds will benefit GrowRIVERSIDE. The farm is home to numerous citrus trees. (photo courtesy of Scott Berndt)

Farm-to-school guru and Riverside Unified School District director of Nutrition Services Rodney Taylor oversees the daily food needs of 43,000 students, but on May 16, Taylor and his culinary team will prepare and serve food to 60 guests at the 2nd Dinner in the Grove, which benefits GrowRIVERSIDE.

This event, set at Fox Farm in Riverside, will support the upcoming GrowRIVERSIDE conference, slated for June 11-13 in Riverside, California. Additionally, the dinner will celebrate the RUSD Nutrition Team’s accomplishments and continuing efforts in feeding healthy, local food to students in the district, as well as Riverside County’s rich citrus and agricultural heritage.

RUSD Nutrition Services won’t merely prepare the food—Taylor and others on his staff will speak on the importance of local food and farmers to the district. Host farmer Scott Berndt of Fox Farm and Lana Hapeman of Hapeman Ranch will also speak about the importance of preserving urban farmland in Riverside and elsewhere.

Even though this is the first time Taylor and his staff have prepared food for a GrowRIVERSIDE event, the RUSD is no stranger to such productions. Both a chef and sous chef are on the staff of RUSD Nutrition Services, and Taylor’s assistant is also a chef.

“We have catered weddings; you name it, we do it,” says Taylor. “We provided food for a YWCA fundraiser with carne asada beef with mango dressing, and were awarded at the end of the night. We’ve also done catering at the (Riverside) Mayor’s office.”

But the food served at this May 16 dinner will reinforce and provide a backdrop to Taylor’s message. At the event, he will speak about the importance of small farmers and the importance of teaching children to be lifelong healthy eaters.

“This is not only important to children but to families,” he says.

When Taylor move to Riverside from the school district in Santa Monica and Malibu, California, where he first initiated farm-to-school food for students, people told him his success could not be replicated because of the different levels of affluence between Malibu and Riverside. More than 15 years later, Taylor has continually proved his doubters wrong, with thousands of students eating healthier and numerous local farmers on board to show for it.

“A school district can be a catalyst for change in a community,” he says. “School districts are an untapped resource, and this can be replicated across the country.”

Scott Berndt, operator of host site Fox Farm, found out about GrowRIVERSIDE from his involvement with the Riverside Food Co-op. This was timely, as he had just taken control of his urban farm. Berndt would like to ensure that farms like his have a future.

“It’s important to safeguard farms in Southern California, where developers like to develop every square inch of land,” says Berndt, who, along with Lana Hapeman of Hapeman Ranch will also speak at the dinner.

Berndt, a 50-year-old restaurant manager originally from South Dakota, composts, grows vegetables and has numerous fruit trees to take care of. He’s eying a possible full-time career as a farmer.

Berndt not only values local food production, but the rich abundance of wildlife in Southern California. He does not want to see this disappear.

“Riverside has hosts of wildlife, including bobcats, roadrunners, foxes, bluebirds and red-tailed hawks,” he says. “It’s important to have space for animals in our communities.”

Food at the dinner will be sourced from Riverside County farms as well as host sites Fox Farm and Hapeman Ranch.

Dinner menu highlights include tomato and goat cheese bruschetta; greens with avocado, strawberries, red onion and toasted pecans; gnocchi with fresh pesto sauce; roasted free-range chicken with sweet onion compote; braised short ribs with herbed polenta; and lemon tart with fresh berry coulis. Torch Coffee, a roaster in Riverside, will provide coffee that is sourced from sustainable farmers.

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