Meet Maria Galleher: Chula Vista High School Teacher of the Year and Wellness Champion

Maria Galleher Teacher of the Year and Wellness Champion

Most mornings, Maria Galleher and a couple dozen students can be found in the garden at Chula Vista High School. She gently calls out instructions to groups of students, though this late in the school year most of them don’t need direction. Everyone has a job in the gardening class: some use shovels to turn the compost while others clean tools and buckets, wash the day’s harvest, and rake the soil.

CVHS students working the garden box

Students in the CVHS garden class tend to a raised planter growing cilantro and cabbage.

A great variety of edible plants thrive in the organic garden, from kale and rainbow chard to green and red lettuce to an overflowing herb area. With so much flourishing greens, it’s surprising to learn that the garden was a patch of mud and dirt only two years ago. At first the dirt couldn’t keep anything alive, and it took a labor of love to turn the dirt into the productive garden it is today. But Mrs. Galleher was not without help: every day her students worked the dirt, learning while doing to turn it into healthy soil. She also enlisted help from outside organizations to donate supplies and provide science-based lessons in gardening.

Chula Vista High School garden boxes

Companion planting helps the garden at CVHS thrive.

Teacher of the Year

It was these efforts that landed Mrs. Galleher the Teacher of the Year award for Chula Vista High School. She was humbled to receive the award in light of the many wonderful teachers at Chula Vista High School, but she’s proud to represent a school that addresses the needs of the whole child. “It’s incredible how supportive the teachers and administration have been,” she says. “Teachers use the garden’s outdoor classroom space and several have donated money for crops or donated their old gardening tools.”

CVHS garden cooking demo

CVHS gardening students learn about growing their food.

Mrs. Galleher also represents her students. “They’ve made incredible changes to the overall beauty of the campus,” she says. Mrs. Galleher uses the garden to teach her students about symbiotic relationships and organic pest control. “Everything is organic, which means there are no pesticides here,” she says. Planting companion species together, such as tomato and basil, reduces the need for pesticides. When pests do become a problem, natural solutions are introduced. Ladybugs control aphids, native birds gobble up tomato hornworms, and spiders eat up just about everything else. Students also lend a hand by washing aphids and whiteflies off leaves with water and a drop of peppermint soap and embark on worm gathering expeditions.

Ladybugs on sunflower at Chula Vista High School

Ladybugs and other beneficial insects provide natural pest control at the CVHS student garden.

The garden is as sustainable as possible, which helps reduce costs. “Nothing goes to waste, right?” Mrs. Galleher prompts her students as they tend the garden. Discards from the harvest, including brown leaves, garlic ends, and citrus peels, are added to the compost. A bucket under the standalone sink collects water from washing the produce, which is then given right back to the plants.

Each student is responsible for nurturing the plants, and the pride they have in their results is obvious. Who knew high school students would get so excited to pull up a beet? Mrs. Galleher is especially proud when her students share their bounty with other teachers, saying, “It strengthens the bond between them and fosters a mutually respectful relationship.”

CVHS students with cilantro

Gardening students proudly pose with their day’s harvest – fresh cilantro!

Food as a vehicle for learning and healing

“Does anyone want to make a smoothie?” Mrs. Galleher asks. A chorus of enthusiastic “yeah!”s erupts, and students rush to gather around the blender. They add freshly picked cilantro to a mix of spinach, frozen pineapple, and a big squeeze of lemon and take turns passing around sample sized smoothie tastes.

CVHS students saute veggies

The gardening class often culminates in a healthy snack to reward students with the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor.

On a griddle in room #807, Mrs. Galleher helps a few students sauté handfuls of chopped rainbow chard with olive oil, garlic, onion, and a sprinkle of sea salt, fresh cracked pepper, and oregano. The students, some of whom had never even heard of chard before this class, crowd around the griddle to scoop the sauté onto tortilla chips. Many take seconds and thirds until there’s none left.

Learning beyond the classroom

The students are learning more than how to take care of a garden, they’re also discovering more about what they eat. Even better, they’re passing this information on to their families, changing eating habits at home. One student has stopped eating food with high fructose corn syrup as the first ingredient, while another encouraged her whole family to cut back on soda. Overall, students and their families are eating more fruits and vegetables and less junk after learning what goes into their food. They’re even empowered to bring some of the produce home to make vibrant salads for their families, taking a greater role in their individual and family health.

CVHS students chop chard

Students chop rainbow chard from the garden, a food some had never tried before.

The benefits of the garden extend beyond Mrs. Galleher’s classroom. Students passing by the garden on their way to class pluck ripe cherry tomatoes for an on-the-go bite. “They’re better than candy,” she says. She even shared a rainbow chard and queso taco with a teacher who had never tried chard before and was hesitant. When she convinced him, he liked it! Mrs. Galleher hopes that, “the next time he goes grocery shopping he won’t be intimidated by new foods.” Changing adult and student minds about food is a source of pride for Mrs. Galleher.

Purple tomatoes at Chula Vista High School garden

Students passing through the garden pluck ripe tomatoes from the vine to pop in their mouths.

Even though the Chula Vista High School garden is flourishing, Mrs. Galleher says this is only the first step. Eventually she wants the garden to be able to supply a year-round fresh, organic salad bar for the school cafeteria. Ideally, she’ll be able to supply fresh produce for more than just Chula Vista High School. Sweetwater Union HSD already purchases food from schools in the district, including eggs from the chicken farm at Sweetwater High School. Could Mrs. Galleher’s garden be the next student-run farm to supply the district with fresh food? There are plans in the works to expand the garden, transforming other areas of unproductive dirt into an orchard, a pollinator garden, and (fingers crossed) a chicken farm. If Mrs. Galleher and her students continue to see this level of success, all of Sweetwater Union HSD students might be enjoying a CVHS-grown salad bar.

By Lindsay Mineo


Vegan & Vegetarian Options Grow at Sweetwater Union HSD

Vegan Vegetarian Options Grow

Sweetwater Union High School District is a leader in San Diego County for offering fresh, tasty, clean-label foods that defy the decades-long stereotypes of school food. The meals are more creative, using locally-sourced ingredients and meeting federal nutritional regulations. The menu is expanding in many ways, now offering more vegetarian and vegan menu items.

Sweetwater Union schools have offered vegetarian and vegan options for years, but they often felt like an afterthought. This might be because they were in many other areas. Federal regulations require each meal to have a certain amount of protein, so most of the vegetarian meals were packed with beans and cheese.

Nutrition Services is now getting more creative and focused on building vegetarian and vegan options. The goal: menu items that everyone, even the teachers and the meat-eaters, will want to eat.

Vegan lunch box

A vegan lunch box with high protein hummus and walnuts and fresh cut cucumbers.

There were two main motivations for the shift to develop more vegetarian menu items. The first was the students themselves. There have always been vegetarian students at Sweetwater Union schools, but they want meals that aren’t so reliant on dairy.

“Sweetwater Union wants to be forward thinking and responsive about the meals we provide to students, so we’re happy to accommodate their needs,” says Eric Span, Director of Nutrition Services. This request follows USDA MyPlate recommendations for protein sources that are naturally low in fat.

Soon after, the vegan students came forward, asking for options that meet their needs, too. For Span, vegetarian and vegan student voices matter as much as everyone else’s. Just like schools provide equal access to fresh produce, schools should also provide equal access to alternative foods.

Vegetarian pita sandwich

Vegan pita bread sandwiches use hummus as a spread and are stuffed with filling vegetables.

“We want our cafeterias to be welcoming and inclusive to all students, which is why we’re working on these new vegetarian and vegan options for breakfast and lunch,” says Span. “We’re working to fit these items into how we see food in general. By doing a little thinking outside the box, we can have menu items that meet federal nutrition requirements, are vegan, and taste great. That’s really what the students care about. If the food tastes good they’ll eat it.”

The second motivation was a school nutrition conference last year. There, Span met Lauren Pitts, from the Humane Society of the United States. Their free culinary training programs help school kitchen managers adopt more plant-based foods. One such training will introduce innovative plant-based menu items at Otay Ranch High School. The training will also help make these items more appealing to students.

School nutrition training for vegan items

Lauren Pitts runs a training with kitchen managers. They made a delicious vegan nacho cheese sauce using carrots, potatoes, and nutritional yeast.

Based on this training, Lauren and the nutrition services team are working together to test new items with students. “If the meat eaters also like these choices we’ll be in a really good spot,” says Span. Taste is key when it comes to making smart choices for school lunch.

SUSHD is also piloting The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement at Montgomery High School and Eastlake High School. This program uses strategies from marketing, psychology, and economics to help schools create an environment that makes choosing healthy food easy. These solutions also lead to reduced food waste, and increased school lunch participation, student satisfaction, and nutrient-rich food consumption.

Banana walnut yogurt

This high protein banana walnut yogurt looks like something a coffee shop would serve!

Variety is the spice of life for vegetarian and vegan menu options

Students already have a vegan entree option for breakfast and lunch every day. Some days this means a falafel wrap, other days it’s a Southwest salad. Additionally, all the sides are vegetarian, and most are vegan. Even with all the delicious options, the district is getting requests for more variety. Answering them is the first step in a long-term strategy for a more inclusive nutrition program at Sweetwater Union.

To add more variety, cafeterias are testing out new flavor profiles from around the world. Food suppliers for Sweetwater Union cafeterias already provide vegetarian and vegan items. Even the schools themselves are providing items from their blossoming school gardens. A shining example is Southwest High School’s chicken farm, which provides fresh eggs for the cafeteria.

Sweetwater High School chickens

SUHSD buys eggs from the Sweetwater High School chicken farm to use in school meals. Fresh, local, and healthy!

“These new menu items are helping our cafeterias break the mold of what a traditional school lunch looks like, and we’re really excited about that,” says Span.

What else is on the horizon for Sweetwater cafeterias? Some of the new foods Span and his team are experimenting with involve edamame and falafel. These are both great sources of protein and add a lot to vegan meals.

Quick Cafe fruit and sides

Fresh fruit, veggies, and hummus at a cafe at Eastlake Middle School make healthy snacks easy.

Keep an eye on your school menus over the next few months and let us know what you think of these new options!


Eastlake Middle School Unveils a New Grill at Lunchtime Celebration

Eastlake Middle School Unveils New Grill

The latest in a series of brand new barbecue grills was unveiled during lunch at Eastlake Middle School on February 21. Nutrition services team members christened the grill by serving up all-beef hamburgers, barbecued baby back ribs, tuna melts, and a hot dog that critics have called, “the best in America,” to excited students.

America's best hot dog at Eastlake Middle School

Wellshire Farms all-natural, all-beef hot dogs, sold at Whole Foods AND SUHSD schools. Named “best hot dog in America” by the NY Times.

All school meals conform to federal nutritional standards, but the grills offer an expansion on the current menu. The new menu items include lean meats that are lower in saturated fats and are part of a larger shift towards a greater variety of nutritious foods, including new vegetarian and vegan items. The new grills are a departure from traditional school lunches, elevating school food and creating a more inviting atmosphere on campus. Students were visibly excited about the changes.

Happy Student at Eastlake Middle School

Eastlake Middle School students excitedly making their way to the new grill for lunch.

Several members of the school district community were on campus to support the new addition, including Eric Span, Director of Nutrition Services, Moises Aguirre, Assistant Superintendent of Facilities and Operations, Ricardo Cooke, Eastlake Middle School Principal, and Frank Tarantino, School District Board Member.

SUHSD Leaders

Sweetwater Unified High School District representatives at Eastlake Middle School to unveil the new grill.

Multiple media outlets also attended the celebration, including San Diego Union-Tribune (photo gallery here), Channel 8 News, KUSI, and Univision TV. Even students were interviewed!

Students being interviewed by Channel 8

Eastlake Middle School students being interviewed by Channel 8 News.

Eric Span, Director of Nutrition Services for Sweetwater Union School District, says that rolling out grills to all of the middle and high schools is a response to student requests for more lunch options. One central cafeteria sometimes causes students to spend more of their lunch period in line than enjoying their lunch. By increasing the number of locations that students can get food they are able to spend more time eating it before going back to class.

Eastlake Middle students in line at the grill

Eric Span helping to pass out grilled lunches to students at Eastlake Middle School.

Aside from adding tasty lunch options, there are a number of benefits to the new grills: increased student nutrition, reduced food waste, and increased student excitement and engagement in school lunch. The grills create an undeniably fun atmosphere. Today, speakers filled the Eastlake Middle School lunch area with music, while the scent of freshly grilled hamburgers and hot dogs enticed students waiting in line. There was even an appearance by the Triton mascot!

Eastlake Middle School Triton Mascot

The Eastlake Triton mascot attended both lunch periods to celebrate the new grill!

In addition to these new grills, salad bars will be rolled out to schools over the coming months, offering each student a variety of healthy lunch choices. For $2.80, students can choose a main entree (hamburger, ribs, hot dog, or chicken) and a side (such as mac ‘n cheese) from the grill, plus a fruit and a drink. Traditional lunch options are available in the cafeteria as well.


Behind the Kitchen Doors

Behind the kitchen doors at Sweetwater Unified

A series of articles designed to look at the people and processes that are making Sweetwater Union HSD’s Nutrition Services department a pioneer.

by Larissa Casillas

Jonathan Morris, the Nutrition Services Area Supervisor at Sweetwater Union High School District, remembers seeing something during his site visits that didn’t align with the district’s new wellness rule.

Homemade chicken noodle bowl

A freshly prepared version of Jonathan Morris’s all natural chicken noodle bowl recipe.

“I had been seeing some kids running around campus with a Cup-O-Noodles in hand,” says Morris, who has been working for the district for 6 years, first as a site supervisor and now as the nutrition area services coordinator.

The students, explains Morris, were technically not supposed to have them. He suspects they were either bringing them from home or buying them in an underground market on campus. Regardless, he saw this as an opportunity to get creative and provide a homemade alternative to the sodium-heavy instant soup.

But he couldn’t do this alone; he called on Chef Ron Troyano from Alchemy San Diego, who works as a food consultant for the district. Together they bounced ideas off of each other. The result is a vegetable noodle soup that mimics the flavor profile of the high sodium version, but is significantly higher in nutritional value.  

Chicken noodle bowl ingredients

Sweetwater Schools’ all natural noodle bowl features fresh veggies and homemade chicken broth.

They’re currently testing it out across Sweetwater Union HSD at cafeterias on 23 different campuses before they start officially serving it on their menu. Morris says the dish has been introduced successfully in some sites while encountering hurdles in others, so they’re now fine-tuning it to make it consistent across all schools.  

This is what Morris likes to call the Pandora’s box effect at Sweetwater Union HSD. An idea is born, and then different team players get to work to bring it to life, involving many different aspects. The process couldn’t be complete without the input of students and the proper execution of staff.

One example: Morris says he always keeps in mind the labor intensity of meals when coming up with new recipes. Therefore, to cut some of the prep work for the all-natural Noodle Bowl dish, he used USDA frozen fresh vegetables to minimize the chopping.

The team then worked on the preparation of the broth and tested out different noodles to see which kind worked best.  

Sweetwater nutrition professional development

Training sessions with area chefs is just one aspect of the professional development that Sweetwater Union HSD provides its Nutrition Services staff.

One of Morris’s other recipe creations that have been successfully implemented into the menu is a vegetable fritter made out of poached tomato, onions, pureed black beans and garbanzo beans, and spices.

Morris comes from the restaurant industry and remembers not having to deal with nutritional guidelines.

“You have to be able to walk the fine balance as a responsible business,” he says of his recipe development.

The district has moved away from heat-and-serve foods filled with preservatives, fillers, and soy or vegetable-textured protein.

While he says most kids are happy with meat, cheese or some kind of carb for lunch – you can’t cater to that all of the time. So he finds himself having to get creative to be able to serve healthy food that kids are actually going to come for.

Noodle bowl with vegetables

Another bountiful noodle bowl from Jonathan Morris’s recipe.

And as the district’s nutritional outlook has shifted, so has their equipment to facilitate the scratch cooking and other techniques they’re now doing. This has been the ongoing procurement process of finding the right equipment: refrigerators, ovens, pots and pans, hot boxes and knives.

Similarly, the staff training is an ongoing process at Sweetwater Union HSD.

Chef Ron Troyano

Chef Ron Troyano has helped train more than 200 Sweetwater Union HSD kitchen staff.

Chef Ron Troyano estimates some 220 staff members at Sweetwater Union HSD have gone through their training. Everyone from line cooks, assistants, and managers have been taught safety measures, proper food handling, and knife skills.  

Sweetwater kitchen knife skills training

School kitchen team members practice their knife skills at a recent training day.

They also do site-specific training.

Troyano says morale-boosting and motivational training are also important components of their training. “The tired, old lunch lady stereotype is something we want to get away from,” he says. “We want to motivate the staff and show them that hands-on cooking can be rewarding and fun as opposed to heat-and-serve.”

Troyano says the camaraderie that already exists at Sweetwater Union HSD is one of the best parts about teaching there.

“At my last training three weeks ago, everyone was coming back from winter break and the staff was giving each other hugs, saying ‘it’s so nice to see you again’,” he recalls.

As for Morris, he says the best part about his job is his interaction with the students. “My customer base is really cool, they keep you energized,” he says.

He’s noticed other districts are jumping on board seeing what Sweetwater has been able to do to serve cleaner, more nutritional food. “The push for better food in schools is a mark that we need to keep up with in time,” he says.


Southwest High School’s Farm Pioneers Food Sustainability

Southwest High School, located in San Diego’s South Bay, is in the midst of a pioneering initiative that may well prove to be a model for schools across the county, state and the nation. The school, in cooperation with the district’s Nutrition Services department and a number of grants, is in the midst of developing its own food system, with the first step coming in the form of a sustainable farm which can grow produce to sell and serve at all schools in the Sweetwater Union High School District.

Southwest High School students are responsible for caring for the chickens. During winter break, they self-organized into teams to take shifts maintaining the farm even though classes were out for three weeks. This is a small group of the many students caring for the farm.

The Vision
That vision was conceived by the district’s Director of Nutrition Services, Eric Span, a former chef who leads the department’s visionary efforts. Span, who grew up in Chicago, believes that food can be a healing agent, a vital part of communities, and a forum for those communities to enter into conversation about health and nutrition. He realized that some under-utilized land at a school was filled with possibility to do something special at Southwest High School.

Eric Span, Nutrition Services Director for Sweetwater Union HSD, had a vision for a school-based urban farm to supply schools with fresh, locally produced foods.

“I saw this as a great opportunity to do something different, and the entrepreneurial side of me saw that we could grow our own food and serve it in our cafeterias.

An Enthusiastic Ally
He found an ally in Dr. Hector Arias, head of the engineering academy at Southwest and the creator of the school’s eco-engineering course. Having established himself as an ace engineering student during his undergraduate work in Mexico, Dr. Arias then began graduate level work in engineering as a Fulbright scholar, studying at Louisiana State University, where he earned his PhD.

Dr. Hector Arias and his Eco-Engineering students have designed, built and maintained a thriving (and growing) chicken farm at the school. That’s just the first step.

After several years of teaching and research, including a period at San Diego State University, Dr. Arias accepted an invitation from Sweetwater Union to help bolster the engineering department at Southwest High School. The program is booming, with students winning national awards in robotics, as well as gaining valuable first hand insight from working engineers and architects in San Diego.

Span and Arias quickly gained the support and encouragement of Southwest’s Principal, Lee Romero, and the group set out to execute the idea for a farm.

Southwest High School Principal Lee Romero in front of just one of the thriving chicken coops at the school.

The school began applying for and being awarded a series of grants that have helped to fund and facilitate the steps toward the full scale farm.

Next Step: Build
With the grant money in hand, the classes were able to construct chicken coops, raised growing boxes, and a supply shed for storage of tools, seed, feed and other farming resources; the team also added the care and maintenance of those assets into the eco-engineering curriculum.

Butter lettuce and mixed green lettuce growing in one of several raised planter boxes at Southwest, with a greenhouse in the background.

The chicken coops house close to 400 birds, which produce between 10-12 dozen eggs every day. The Nutrition Services department buys all of the eggs that it can for use in offerings such as protein boxes similar to those found at certain global coffee chains, as well as in cooking for the district’s meals.

While most chickens stay in their coops, a few make it outside for a walk around the school grounds. Free range, indeed.

Cyndi Roncoroni, an English teacher and advisor of the eco-engineering farm says that her students are learning many lessons, from the practicality of farming (such as composting, or using egg shells and pine cones to make pesticides), to valuable lessons in service and leadership. During the recent winter break, students designed a workflow calendar to ensure that chickens were fed and cared for despite classes being on break.

Ms. Roncoroni, as part of the program’s Zero Waste Initiative, helps guide the students so that nothing goes into the trash. Leftover food from the school’s cafeteria goes to feed the chickens, and other waste from the farm helps to fertilize crops.

Mrs. Roncoroni, left, explains the students’ role in caring for the farm to Devon Walker, a Registered Dietitian and Area Supervisor for Nutrition Services.

The work at Southwest is designed to serve as a model for other farming programs across the district, and Span envisions possibilities on every campus. “We may have some that are specialized, growing spices, or installing fruit orchards, whereas other schools may grow leafy vegetables, and so on. The goal is to have a food system that students can look at and know where their food comes from every day.”

“Being located in the South Bay, we are innovative and inventive and have a commitment from the county with our awarded grants,” said Southwest Principal Lee Romero. “We believe in giving these students the opportunity of becoming the next generation of great engineers, and we wouldn’t be Southwest High school today without incredible teachers, like Dr. Arias, Ms. Roncoroni, and Eric Span for our eco-engineering farm” said Mr. Romero.

Continues Span, “As a chef, it provides creativity that students will find interesting and appetizing. Students are asking and wanting something different.”

What appears to be a field of dying grass is the space being prepped for a larger scale farm at the school. The grass is being left to die out so that it is easier, and less expensive, to plow for the farm.

The Nutrition Services department is also working to introduce students to new menu items  that fit into their cultural taste buds, such as a shrimp taco or noodle bowls with homemade broth and fresh vegetables. Span and his team are  also working with students to explore menu options with the humane society, as requests for a greater variety of vegetarian and vegan options have come from students.

The freshest eggs in the south bay are at Southwest High School!

In addition to raised garden beds and the chicken farm, Southwest High School has planted water-saving fruit-bearing plants around the school instead of merely decorative plants, utilizing all areas of the school to produce food.

Grape vines decorate one of the outside walls of Southwest High School.


***2017-2018 Lunch Applications on July 1st

Parent and Guardian,

As of July 1, 2017 meal applications are available for the 2017-2018 school year.

Applications are available at the following locations:

Nutrition Services Office

The Nutrition Services office is located at:
1130 Fifth Avenue
Chula Vista, CA 91911
Phone: (619) 691-5510

All applications completed at the office will be processed while you wait.

Office hours are: 7 am to 3:30 pm, M-F

School Sites

Main offices at all school sites.

Click here for our school directory


Please click here to complete the 2017-2018 Online Meal Application.

Please make sure to create a user name and password for the Parent Portal. The online option allows you to complete the application process from the comfort of your home.

Thank you!


Seamless Summer Feeding Program 2017

The Nutrition Services is sponsoring the Seamless Summer Feeding Program. Free meals are available to ALL children 18 years and younger. No registration or application is needed. For locations and times please click on Seamless Summer Feeding 2017

2017 Seamless Summer Dates



For more information on Free Summer Meals please click on the link below:





YumYummi app!

Yum Yummi is an app that allows students and parents to view breakfast, lunch and supper menus on their cellphones and tablets. Along with menus, nutrition and allergy information will be available through the app. Stay tuned for more updates!



Pre-pay for School Meals PayPAMS

PayPAMS is a safe and simple portal for your student(s) payments.

-Pay for you child’s meals from the convenience of your home
-View your child’s meal account balance
-Schedule automatic payments, based on your child account balance
-Receive low balance email reminders
-View daily spending purchases

Click the link below to access PayPAMS