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Making Lunch Local For California Kids

Making Lunch Local For California Kids (Maya Escobar inspects a chicken-fried steak her cafeteria is serving for lunch. )

School lunchrooms are sometimes called the biggest restaurant chain in America, and in districts across California, there’s a new program aimed to get them serving local ingredients. It’s all part of a big push in the state to promote healthy eating and local agriculture, and to bring the fresh high-end cuisine the state is known for into the cafeteria. There are just two questions: how will they pay for it?  And will California kids eat it?

California public schools serve 560 million lunches a year. In a place that also grows a lot of this country’s food, it makes sense that we California kids would eat California meals.

That’s the idea behind a new school lunch plan that rolled out last week called, California Thursdays. Fifteen districts across the state have partnered with the program, including the biggest, like Los Angeles and San Diego. To roll out a plan of that scale, you probably have to start small.

“What we like to call a bite-sized implementation strategy,” says Zenobia Barlow, the cofounder of the Center for Ecoliteracy. For the past 20 years, her organization has been promoting sustainable living through schools. Because school lunch is so big, Barlow says it could change the way we eat– outside the cafeteria too.

“By institutional purchasing, we’re going to trigger demand that will result in greater production of sustainably grown and sustainably produced food,” explains Barlow. “Just from a business perspective, when kids start eating fresh and freshly prepared delicious meals, there are economies of scale that make it possible.”

But school lunch is bound by federal requirements and a strict budget. Alexandra Emmott is the “farm-to-school supervisor” at the Oakland Unified School District.

She figures, “for an entree, which needs to be a serving of protein and a serving of grain, we have a budget of 60 cents per entree.” Adding that, “for the fruit or vegetable, we have a budget of 20 cents; for the milk, it’s 25 cents.”

A California Thursdays dish can cost more. For example, Emmott says the district pays 40 cents for a locally sourced, antibiotic free, chicken leg. High schoolers
need two drumsticks to meet USDA protein requirements, which puts the entree over budget.

So sometimes the district balances the extra cost over the course of the lunch calendar or it reaches the mark by replacing a second piece of chicken with, say, red beans and rice. It involves some creativity, but Emmott says this type of thinking is starting to catch on.

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

Just last month Minnesota Thursdays launched its own local lunch program for kids in the Twin Cities. But back in Oakland, 17 year old, Ayana Edgerly, boasts, “the food is way better in the cafeteria on Thursdays.”

She worked with the Center for Ecoliteracy to conduct peer taste tests on the California Thursdays recipes over the summer.

“We give them the dish and then we ask them rate 1-5 what would you rate this dish in taste, appearance, and would you get in a lunch line” asks, Edgerly.

Me personally? I haven’t eaten a school lunch since the fourth grade but my colleagues at Youth Radio offered to prepare one of the new dishes.

They whipped up a bowl of shredded chicken and broccoli over brown rice. It looked kind of cute and actually even tasted pretty good, like a home cooked meal but at school.

Soon we’ll see if more kids feel the same.

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