School Food Initiative – Santa Barbara County, USA

Key Insights

  • Whole school approach to food literacy
  • Improving cooking skills of catering staff
  • Combating child overweight and obesity


The public middle schools of Santa Barbara struggled to provide freshly prepared, nutritious food for children; catering consisted largely of heating pre-prepared processed foods that contribute to child overweight and obesity. The Santa Barbara School Food Initiative, launched in 2005, was a whole-school programme that trained food service staff, redesigned kitchens, established vegetable gardens in schools, alongside a food-literacy curriculum for the children. The programme brought benefits both to catering staff and children; the staff were valued as professionals and increased in confidence, while the children increased their fruit and vegetable intake.


This case study version is from the Menu of Actions (2019). Suggested citation: Halliday, J., Platenkamp, L., Nicolarea, Y. (2019) A menu of actions to shape urban food systems for improved nutrition, GAIN, MUFPP and RUAF.

Children planting pumpkins in school garden, Shutterstock/lovelyday12

The action and its aims

Santa Barbara’s School Food Initiative was a long-running, whole-school programme that developed a food-literacy curriculum for middle school children, established wellness committees to prompt cultural shifts, set up 36 school gardens to supply canteens, redesigned kitchens and invested in equipment, and ran ‘boot camps’ to train up food service staff. The aim was two-fold: the promote food literacy, and to help schools provide freshly prepared, nutritious foods.

When it was introduced

The programme ran for ten years, from 2005 until 2015.

Why it was needed

It was developed in response to a lack of cooking skills among food service workers, whose work consisted of heating and serving pre-pre-prepared processed foods that contribute to child obesity and overweight.

Who initiated it, who is involved

The programme was initiated by the Orfalea Programme, a (now-closed) charity organisation, in partnership with Santa Barbara County School Wellness Council, Santa Barbara County Food Service Directors, The STRIDE Centre at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the Center for Ecoliteracy, WorldLink, David B. Gold Foundation, California Department of Public Health Network for a Healthy California.

Impacts to date

Reviews found that children who took part in the programme consumed more fruit and vegetables than their peers. Food staff, who were treated as valued professionals rather than second-tier support staff, had new-found confidence, interest and satisfaction in their work.

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Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Food System

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include a significant number of interconnected objectives related to agriculture and food.

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