In summary

Bills in the Legislature would make school food accessible to all students and provide incentives for healthier plant-based meals.

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By Kari Hamerschlag

Kari Hamerschlag is the deputy director of the Food and Agriculture Program at Friends of the Earth, khamerschlag@foe.org.

Christopher D. Cook, Special to CalMatters

Christopher D. Cook is an author and award-winning journalist, and consultant for Friends of the Earth, christopherdcookwritereditor@gmail.com.

As California’s schools prepare to reopen, protecting childrens’ health must be a top priority. One surprising way to achieve this, along with rigorous COVID-19 protocols, is to make school food more accessible and healthful. Two bills in the state Legislature provide a booster shot in that direction. 

One measure, Senate Bill 364, would make California the first state to provide universal access to school meals. The other, Assembly Bill 558, would provide incentives for healthier plant-based meals. Access and quality nutrition are essential to bolstering kids’ health during the pandemic and beyond.  

Despite improvements over the last decade, a new report by Friends of the Earth finds that the most widely offered meals include ultra-processed and fast food items such as chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers, meat pizzas, hotdogs and deli meat sandwiches. Analyzing more than 1,300 lunch entrees across California’s 25 largest school districts, the report found that 94% of school lunch entrées feature meat and dairy, and 16% of meals include processed meats considered carcinogenic by the World Health Organization; only 4% are plant-based.

These meat and dairy centric meals are out of step with leading public health guidance around healthy eating. The American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health all urge more consumption of plant-based foods and less meat, especially processed meat. Even the 2020-25 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a document intended to guide school meal patterns, has linked red and processed meat to detrimental health outcomes.

Dedicated school food-service workers do their best to nourish our kids, but the USDA Foods program provides ready and low-cost access to subsidized and processed industrial meat and dairy products that cash-strapped school districts can’t resist. This artificially cheap USDA food primarily benefits giant companies like Arkansas-based Tyson Foods and makes it difficult for California’s sustainable farmers and ranchers to compete.

This glut of factory farm meat and dairy in school meals may carry a low sticker price, but the costs for public health are unacceptable – especially for low-income and children of color who rely on school lunch as a main source of nutrition. Black and Brown children, who face increasing levels of diabetes and have obesity at three times the rate of white kids in California, would be much better served by fresh, healthy, plant-forward, local sourced meals.

Shifting to lower-carbon plant-forward meals would also benefit our environment and climate future. As the Friends of the Earth report documents, animal products, which rely on large quantities of pesticides, fertilizer and water comprise a whopping 96% of the carbon footprint of all USDA Foods products purchased by schools across the state. 

If every school district in California replaced a beef burger with a black bean burger just once a month, that would slash nearly 222 million pounds of carbon emissions – equivalent to not burning 11.4 million gallons of gasoline or taking 22,000 cars off the road each year. 

As California schools emerge from the pandemic’s deep-freeze, state and federal policymakers have the opportunity to improve the quality and sustainability of meals, generating a triple-win for kids’ health, farmers and our climate. 

Congress must help reform USDA Foods and the National School Lunch Program in the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization. California legislators can do their part by passing SB 364 and AB 558 to provide incentives for plant-based meals. California should also continue funding the $10 million Farm to School initiative championed by the First Partner, Jennifer Siebel Newsom. This program educates kids about food and farming, and enables schools to source more sustainable foods from local farmers. 

With public health being paramount, we must prioritize the nourishment and long-term health of all children. Our public schools and the food they serve are central to that task. Let’s transform school food so that it nourishes kids’ health and creates new opportunities for farmers and a better climate future.

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