15 Calif. School Districts Begin Serving Locally Grown Foods to Students

SAN FRANCISCO -- Last week, 15 school districts across California began serving their students school lunches made from foods grown in California and prepared freshly just for them.

“We are going beyond the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act,” said Jennifer LeBarre, executive director of the Oakland Unified School District’s (OUSD) Nutrition Services. President Obama signed it into law by in 2010 and it was championed by his wife, Michelle Obama.

Actually, OUSD rolled out the “California Thursdays” school lunch program one year ago, and its success encouraged other school districts to emulate it. Aside from such large urban school districts as Los Angeles, Oakland, Riverside and San Diego, California Thursdays has also begun in rural school districts such as Alvord, Hemet and Coachella.

Planners of the program initially decided to offer locally grown food just once a month – “a bite-sized implementation strategy” as Chris Smith, program and resource director with the Berkeley-based Center for Ecoliteracy put it. Then they decided to do it one day a week, randomly picking the day, Thursday, and calling the program California Thursdays.

“Thursday just seemed the right day,” Smith said, adding: “The name stuck.”

LeBarre said that even though California schools launched the healthy meals school lunch program two years ago, not all school districts served foods grown locally and many served processed foods. Some of the foods were grown as far away as in South America and shipped to China for processing. Schools microwaved the frozen prepared foods and served them to children.

The recipes for "California Thursdays" meals have been student-tested and options include fresh chicken fajita bowls, Asian noodles with Bok Choy, and pasta penne with chorizo and kale.

“Whenever we serve fresh, locally grown food to children with these recipes, they devour it,” said Zenobia Barlow, executive director of the Center for Ecoliteracy.

Planners saw that the program, aside from helping children stay healthy and thereby help improve their academic performance, made good economic sense. They say that every $1 spent on local food fosters $1.86 in local economic activity. Every job created in the production of local food also leads to an addition of two or more new jobs within the community, according to a press release put out by the Center for Ecoliteracy.

“The California Thursdays program will help the local economy and the environment,” LeBarre said.
If the program is successful, this could become a regular part of menus for students across the state, and also every day of the week. Even as it is, some school districts serve fresh locally grown food more than one day a week, Smith said.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Specialty Cross Block Grant Program, The California Endowment, TomKat Charitable Trust, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Center for Ecoliteracy provided free tool kits to California school districts “to put together the resources” needed to launch California Thursdays, Smith said.


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