California experiments with local school lunch program

School lunch nutrition affects many aspects of a community. It’s an incredibly important subject, as it relates to children’s health and habits for the long term. Now, a new program in California is seeking to incorporate more locally grown foods onto students’ plates, and it’s part of a larger state-wide push to promote healthy eating and local agriculture, Maya Escobar of NPR’s Marketplace reports.

Given the large number of school lunches California serves annually—560 million to be exact—how will districts pay for it?

California is a state that grows a lot of its food, so the program makes sense. So far, fifteen districts across the state have signed on as partners, including Los Angeles and San Diego. “Yet the large-scale change is starting small,” Escobar explains.

“What we like to call a bite-sized implementation strategy,” says Zenobia Barlow, co-founder of the Center for Ecoliteracy. “By institutional purchasing, we’re going to trigger demand that will result in greater production of sustainably grown and sustainably produced food.”

However, there are real budgetary challenges, particularly since school lunch must abide by federal requirements and adhere to a strict budget. For instance, entrees always need to include a serving of protein and a serving of grain.

Moreover, as Alexandra Emmott, Oakland Unified School District’s “farm-to-school supervisor” explains, each entree must not exceed a budget of 60 cents. Fruits or vegetables are allocated 20 cents each, and milk gets 25 cents.

Last year, the Oakland Unified School District’s (OUSD) Nutrition Services (OUSD) launched the “California Thursdays” school lunch program. Its success has set a model for other school districts across the country to follow, Viji Sundaram of New America Media explains.

The premise of the program is to have special meals on Thursdays. A California Thursdays dish costs more than the average meal, as the district pays 40 cents for a locally sourced and antibiotic-free chicken leg. There is another challenge: High-schoolers need two drumsticks to meet USDA protein requirements, in turn putting the entree over budget, Emmott tells Escobar of Marketplace.

Luckily, there are ways to offset that extra cost, such as replacing the second piece of meat with red beans and rice, for example. This allows the entree to meet, but not exceed the price point, Emmott says. It does involve some creativity, but it is doable, she affirms.

As Emmott explains, locally sourced food is a trend catching on in different regions of the country, including the Northeast and Midwest.

“I talked to folks in Maine who were sourcing local proteins up there, even fish,” Emmott says. “So there are districts all across the country who are starting to do this.”

The Midwest is also jumping on board the local food push. Last month, Minnesota Thursdays started its own local lunch program for students in the Twin Cities.

How have students responded? With student’s mark of approval, a program has a much greater chance of success.

Oakland 17-year-old student Ayana Edgerly says “the food is way better in the cafeteria on Thursdays.” During the summer, Edgerly was part of the peer taste-tests program run by the Center for Ecoliteracy. As part of the program, students were asked to try and rate dishes in terms of taste and appearance, and also asked whether they would get in a lunch line for the particular meal—the true test of whether a food will be successful.

As districts consider implementing programs such as these, it is critical that they have the cost calculation solutions to assist them. Cafeteria software and food cost calculation tools enable districts to serve their students healthy food and remain on budget.