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OPN Connect Newsletter 200 · January 14, 2021

New Report Showcases Success of Organic Meal Programs at Three California Public Schools


Last month, nonprofits Friends of the Earth and Conscious Kitchen released a report detailing the organic meal programs at three Bay Area public schools. Entitled “Organic, Plant-Forward, Scratch Cooked School Meals: A California Case Study,” the report takes an in-depth look at how the three schools were able to successfully implement organic meal programs and ensure all their students have access to healthy food.

“One of our most surprising findings was that California schools can provide completely organic meals at the same cost as conventional meals so long as schools have sufficient staff and scratch-cooking capacity (which about 1/3 of CA school districts have), and if they use creative procurement, waste reduction, and plant-forward menu strategies,” says Kendra Klein, senior staff scientist at Friends of the Earth and one of the co-authors of the 45-page report. (The report was also authored by Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of Friends of the Earth’s Food and Agriculture program, and Sarah Arndt, consultant to Conscious Kitchen.)

Stemilt January 2021

Kendra Klein, Senior Staff Scientist, Friends of the Earth

The case study looks at Willow Creek Academy and Bayside MLK Academy, two elementary schools in the Sausalito Marin City School District that have had federally supported organic meal programs for five years and seven years, respectively. Both schools’ meal programs are based on a model called Conscious Kitchen, which was developed and piloted by a nonprofit organization of the same name at Bayside MLK Academy in 2013. The case study also looks at Peres Elementary School in West Contra Costa United School District, which successfully piloted the Conscious Kitchen model in the 2018-2019 school year.

“One of our most surprising findings was that California schools can provide completely organic meals at the same cost as conventional meals so long as schools have sufficient staff and scratch-cooking capacity (which about 1/3 of CA school districts have), and if they use creative procurement, waste reduction, and plant-forward menu strategies.” -Kendra Klein

Conscious Kitchen chose to create a 100-percent organic model for its meal program because, as the report notes, “Organic food reduces children’s exposure [to] pesticides. ... Organic farming also eliminates farmers, farmworkers, and rural communities from pesticide exposure. Organic farming also eliminates routine use of antibiotics and other drugs in animal agriculture, provides food with improved nutritional profiles, and protects biodiversity and the climate.”

Chelan Fresh January 2021

Students at Bayside MLK Academy 

All three of the Bay Area schools sourced the majority of their organic fruits and vegetables from Earl’s Organic Produce. “By partnering with Earl’s, schools were able to access organic produce through an ordering, delivery, and accounting system that met the needs of institutional food service,” write the authors of the report. “The three schools purchased 86 percent of their produce from Earl’s during the 2018-19 school year.”

In addition to sourcing from Earl’s, the schools were able to directly purchase some produce from local organic farms. “The constraints of institutional food procurement make purchasing directly from farmers challenging,” the report notes. “However, prioritizing direct purchasing when possible allows schools to build strong relationships with local farmers and benefits the local economy. In 2018-19, participating schools purchased nearly 15 percent of their produce via direct relationships with farmers brokered by [Conscious Kitchen].”

Valent January 2021

“Organic food reduces children’s exposure [to] pesticides. ... Organic farming also eliminates farmers, farmworkers, and rural communities from pesticide exposure. Organic farming also eliminates routine use of antibiotics and other drugs in animal agriculture, provides food with improved nutritional profiles, and protects biodiversity and the climate.”   -Conscious Kitchen and Friends of the Earth

The Conscious Kitchen model was designed to be plant-forward as eating an abundance of plants has been shown to have both positive health and environmental effects. Some examples of the organic plant-based meals offered by the three schools include: pasta marinara, roasted cauliflower, and orange slices; nachos with pinto beans, salad, and apple slices; and vegan chili, roasted broccoli, and fruit salad. 

Students from Willow Creek Academy

Shenandoah Growers Jan2021

In addition to its health and environmental benefits, Conscious Kitchen’s plant-forward approach also helps keep costs down. As the report notes, “Willow Creek discovered it could save $9,450 per year by swapping out some beef-based meals for plant-forward and plant-based options.”

Central to Conscious Kitchen’s mission is nutritional equity—making sure all kids, regardless of socioeconomic status, have access to high-quality, organic food. “We believe access to healthy food is a right, not a privilege,” says Conscious Kitchen on its website. “By providing all children with healthy, organic food in school and community settings, Conscious Kitchen seeks to overcome health disparities that take an unfair toll on children living in low-income households, while reducing the stigma often associated with National School Lunch Program participation.”

Chef Dolores Coleman, Conscious Kitchen 

Two of the schools in the case study have student populations where 100 percent of the kids are eligible for free or partially subsidized meals. As Emily Cox, the principal of Willow Creek Academy, says, “Considering that many of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch, having a healthy, organic breakfast and lunch available to ALL kids is a powerful way to address equity issues in our community.” 

Naturesafe January 2021

“By providing all children with healthy, organic food in school and community settings, Conscious Kitchen seeks to overcome health disparities that take an unfair toll on children living in low-income households, while reducing the stigma often associated with National School Lunch Program participation.” -Conscious Kitchen

The report highlights the importance of state policies in supporting school meal programs, and it makes a number of recommendations to state policymakers to help more schools shift to organic meal plans. These include:

  • Ensure consistent funding for the California Department of Food and Agriculture Farm to School Program, and incentivize that program to source from organic farms.
  • Request that the Department of Defense Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program in the state prioritize organic produce.
  • Enact state legislation that specifically supports organic and plant-based foods in schools (e.g., CA AB 958 and CA AB 479).

“We hope this report inspires other school districts to discover which strategies and investments work for them,” write the authors. “We also hope that the policy recommendations and compelling benefits outlined in the report will inspire greater public and philanthropic advocacy, investment, and policy change to support a transition to healthier, organic, climate-friendly school food service.”

For more information, please visit the report webpage HERE.

Starr Ranch
Global Organics Group January 2021

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