It’s not a stretch to say San Diego Unified School District has one of the more progressive school lunch programs in the nation.

Its school cafeterias are stocked with fresh salad bars. Mondays are meatless. School gardens are thriving.  Local organic tofu is a regular menu item. A million pounds of local, fresh produce like avocados, persimmons and Julian apples have reached the hands and mouths of growing kids, thanks to a vibrant farm-to-school program, and a climate that allows for a year-round growing season.

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But even with all the good stuff sprouting, San Diego County, like much of the nation, still wrestles with serious issues like childhood obesity, hunger and food insecurity.

And with more than 131,000 hungry mouths to feed every day – the district’s sheer size  (it’s the second largest school district in the state of California, behind Los Angeles) means there’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to educating children about nutrition and healthy food choices. Neither the school district, nor local farmers have the marketing dollars to compete with fast food, soda and sugared cereals when it comes to getting our children’s attention.

Enter FoodCorps.

San Diego is now just one of three Southern California school districts to be assigned a FoodCorps service member (Ventura and Los Angeles were the other two).

If you’re not familiar with FoodCorps, it’s part of the AmeriCorps service network. In 2011, the first class of service members fanned out to 10 states, armed with the mission of connecting school kids to real food. This fall, California joined the list, and service member Mary Tyranski, 35, began her work in San Diego.

“We’re really excited to be part of FoodCorps’ first year in California,” said Kathryn Spencer, a farm-to-school specialist for San Diego Unified. “Mary will be leading produce tastings in cafeterias across the district, trying to get students excited about eating and tasting the produce served in our salad bars every day. We really hope she can get the word out about our farm to school program to students and parents so they can understand how school food has changed.”

This week Tyranski, will begin focusing on community outreach by attending fall festivals held at area schools and talking with parents and kids about the local produce being served in school cafeterias. She’ll also be introducing newly launched “dipper bars” being tested in about a dozen San Diego elementary schools.

“Instead of a salad bar, a dipper bar has wedges of celery, cucumbers and carrots, with dipping choices like hummus, organic honey mustard and ranch dressing,” she said. “The idea is they can eat it with their hands, and we’re hoping that will encourage them to take more servings.”

Tyranski will be a regular at Pacific Beach Middle School’s garden club after school. And over the course of her 11 months of service, students will likely see her stationed near a lunchtime salad bar, tempting them with fresh berries or mouth-puckering kumquats.

“The school gardens, the local food – it’s about getting their fingers dirty and having a relationship with fruits and vegetables so when the kids to the cafeteria, they’ll choose it,” she says. “I’m just boots on the ground.”

Ambitious boots given the size of the task.

“So far, the biggest surprise to me is just how massive the school district is and what a challenge it is to get the get the message out about healthy eating. It’s just a really big scale to work with.”

Clare Leschin-Hoar is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow her on Twitter @c_leschin or email her

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