School food advocates cheered earlier this month when California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a major boost in state funding for California school food. The Governor’s 2020-21 budget proposes US$80 million for school food programs serving more than 3.5 million children in the state, many of whom rely on free-and-reduced school meals for up to 50 percent of their daily nutrition. This is huge news, as California has not made new investments in feeding the state’s most food-insecure students in over a decade. If spent well, these new funds could generate major benefits for children’s health, farmers, school food workers, the climate, and our state’s soil and water resources.
This vital funding boost follows a surge of advocacy over the past year, including three widely supported school food bills in the state legislature in 2019 aimed at increasing plant-based and organic food and expanding universal access to school meals. Building on this momentum, Friends of the Earth worked with a broad spectrum of allies–– including Natural Resources Defense Council, Community Alliance with Family Farms, Edible Schoolyard Project, Conscious Kitchen, Center for Ecoliteracy and the office of Kat Taylor, Co-CEO of Beneficial State Bank and a major leader on this issue–– to urge the Newsom administration to invest in a more comprehensive approach to school food. This vision focuses on upgrading food quality and freshness, serving more climate-friendly, plant-based and organic food, supporting local farmers, developing food and garden education programs, and investing in worker training and higher-skilled, better-paid jobs. These integrated elements are all needed to build a vibrant, economically viable school food community that supports children’s health, workers, and sustainability.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture’s (CDFA) new Farm to School Program (F2S) will support many elements of this transformative vision under the leadership of a working group led by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the Governor’s First Partner. Besides funding six new staff positions in the Office of Farm to Fork, the budget provides US$8.5 million for a one-time grant-program—nearly as much as the entire 2020 federal Farm to School Grant Program. If approved by the State legislature, this new CDFA program will fund various aspects of farm to school programming: local food procurement, education in classrooms and cafeterias, and experiential learning in school garden and culinary programs. The F2S program will also create infrastructure to help increase the supply and purchases of “climate-smart” California food products. With small and mid-sized diversified organic farmers leading the sector in climate-friendly practices such as cover cropping and composting, it is our hope, as articulated by Lena Brook in this blog, that “organic agriculture will be at the center” of efforts to boost “climate-smart” local food procurement.
The US$60 million question: moving beyond status quo school food
While CDFA has laid out its F2S program in great detail, much less clear is how the California Department of Education would spend the US$60 million allocated “to improve the quality of subsidized school meals and encourage participation in the state and federal school nutrition programs.” This 40 percent increase over current spending for school food reimbursements comes at a critical time. Just last week, the Trump Administration proposed a second rollback of standards established in the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, a landmark bill that improved school food healthfulness under the leadership of First Lady Michelle Obama.
To increase school meal participation, especially among low-income students of color, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, along with legislative budget leaders, should target the funds to expand universal school meal access and improve the quality, sustainability and freshness of school meals. This would not only ensure greater equity but could help to expand school food budgets overall by boosting participation rates among all students. A 2019 U.S. Department of Agriculture study revealed that students participate more in school meal programs that provide the highest healthy food standards. Furthermore, unless this money is tied to specific improvements, the state risks using its resources to simply sustain the status quo: a preponderance of pre-made, ultra-processed, carbon-intensive, meat-centric school meals that are too often unhealthy for kids and unsustainable for our environment.
One way to ensure better outcomes for equity, health, the climate, and natural resources, while avoiding undue burdens and mandates for school districts, is to link the US$60 million to a range of possible improvements. These could include expanding universal meal access, serving more minimally processed, low-sugar foods and increasing organic and plant-based options that lower carbon emissions and protect student health.
Serving more plant-based food would generate major climate and health benefits
Industrial animal products, on the menu every day in California’s public schools, are among the most climate-harming, resource-intensive, and polluting foods, requiring huge amounts of land, water, fuel, pesticides, and other energy-intensive inputs. With more than 800 million school meals served annually in the state, small menu shifts that swap meat dishes for plant-based entrees can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental harms. A Friends of the Earth analysis of Oakland Unified School District’s (OUSD) food purchases found that animal products accounted for 76 percent of its school food carbon footprint. By reducing meat and cheese in kids’ meals over a two-year period, OUSD reduced its carbon footprint by 14 percent. This is equivalent to the emissions saved by installing 87 residential solar systems or driving 1.5 million miles less.
Serving less meat and more plant-based foods is also in greater alignment with numerous public health organizations’ recommendations, including the USDA’s 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommends that teenage boys and men reduce their meat consumption. Overconsumption of industrial animal products, especially red and processed meat, is linked to serious and costly diet-related diseases. Adding plant-based options to school menus can help children consume more foods that are high in fiber and other essential nutrients they lack; according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), only two percent of high-schoolers eat enough vegetables. Studies show that eating an abundance of plant-based foods—including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes—reduces the risk for heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. These factors led lawmakers in the Assembly last year to overwhelmingly support AB 479, a bill that would provide incentives to school districts for serving more plant-based meals.
Overcoming obstacles and upgrading school food jobs and kitchens
While school food directors and staff deserve great respect for their hard work and progress in improving the quality of school meals, districts across the state continue to face serious obstacles: inadequate kitchen facilities; insufficient public funding to cover higher-skilled labor and quality food costs; and National School Lunch Program food subsidies and regulations that favor big food manufacturers and factory-farmed meat and dairy over children’s health.
Today, in order to deliver meals within budget, school foodservice directors often rely on part-time low-wage workers—predominantly women of color—to prepare pre-made, heavily processed and packaged food using heat-and-serve equipment. Some schools have improved food quality through scratch cooking in new kitchens, installing salad bars, offering plant-based alternatives, and implementing a fresher, speed scratch approach to cooking. However, As Jennifer Gaddis explains in The Labor of Lunch, a larger paradigm shift will require significant investments in upgrading the quality of school food jobs and dramatically improving kitchen facilities.
Thankfully there are ways that Newsom’s budget and a new California bond measure on the ballot in March 2020 can help with these challenges. Newsom’s 2020-21 budget includes US$10 million for school food worker training, while the bond measure would enable taxpayer funds to be invested in new school infrastructure, including kitchens.
Transforming school food won’t be easy. Eighty million dollars, including US$62 million of ongoing funding for meal reimbursements and Farm to School program staffing, will not shift the current industrial school food paradigm overnight. However, it represents a major, positive step in the right direction. If invested smartly, it will help cash-strapped school nutrition services create a better-trained workforce that can provide healthier, fresher, and more climate-friendly food to California kids. Putting more money in the hands of local farmers and creating better jobs will also strengthen local and rural economies. It’s an investment that will pay enormous dividends for our children’s health, food workers, our farmers, and the environment well into the future.