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California leads way in low-carbon school meals

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Monday, February 19, 2024   

By Naoki Nitta for Civil Eats.
Broadcast version by Suzanne Potter for California News Service reporting for the Solutions Journalism Network-Public News Service Collaboration


In 2021, Josh Goddard came across some sobering news. That year’s United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report showed that globally, meat and dairy production is responsible for fueling nearly a third of human-caused methane gas emissions.

The IPCC assessment “was pretty unforgiving,” says the director of nutrition services for Southern California’s Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD), in making “strong connections between our food systems and climate change.” Methane is a short-lived but potent greenhouse gas that scientists say has driven roughly 30 percent of Earth’s warming since pre-industrial times.

The news was “an impetus for action” for Goddard, who runs one of the state’s largest school meal programs serving upwards of 10 million lunches, breakfasts, snacks, and suppers annually with more than 80 percent of students eligible for free and reduced-priced meals.

With blessing from administrators and the community, Santa Ana schools started offering an entirely plant-based lunch menu once a week. Milk is still available daily per U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) requirement. The revised offerings, which include creative dishes such as tempeh tacos and buffalo cauliflower wraps, have helped reduce SAUSD’s climate impact, Goddard says. His EPA-guided calculations estimate a district-wide reduction in emissions by about 1,300 tons a year.

Santa Ana’s efforts, however, are not unique. Across the nation, students returning to school have found expanded plant-based options in their cafeteria offerings. But in California, an array of recent progressive school food initiatives has helped raise the bar on making lunch menus not just more climate-friendly, but healthier and more inclusive, by appealing to a greater range of dietary preferences and restrictions—as well as palettes.

“Kids and lentils aren’t good bedfellows,” says Goddard. With tight budgets and complex USDA reimbursement requirements, appeasing the palettes of 39,000 students can be a challenge. But along with creativity, ingenuity, and state support, investments in kitchen facilities, equipment, and staff training, he says, “can make something like lentil piccadillo rather special.”

Plant-Powered Progress

As school districts across the country move to a plant-forward menu approach, many have widened their offerings far beyond cheese pizzas and nut butter sandwiches. In 2022, the New York School System introduced “Plant-Powered Fridays,” serving up hot, vegan meals such as zesty chickpea stew and a bean and plantain bowl to its 1.1 million students. Lee County schools in Florida—the 32nd largest school district in the country—have been dishing up bean burger gyros and breaded tofu nuggets weekly since 2015.

At public schools in Minneapolis, “we make [plant-based dishes] a choice, every single day,” says Bertrand Weber, director of the district’s culinary and wellness services. While selections often include dairy products, they steer clear of meat analogs such as imitation chicken tenders and “bleeding vegan burgers,” he says.

Instead, offerings focus on fiber-rich, whole and minimally-processed ingredients including legumes and pulses, pea protein crumble, and soy products such as tofu and tempeh—foods that are better aligned with the nutritional guidelines of leading public health organizations.

Plant-based foods are not the most popular items on the menu, Weber concedes. He estimates the “take rate” is about 10 percent—though he has seen steady growth in demand since implementing the change two years ago. In nearby Richfield, the district reports that on some days, nearly half of its students reach for the vegan choice. “Our approach is, here are the [daily] options that you have,” he says, “and one of those is always non-meat.”

Such broader selections caters to the shifting trend among Gen Z towards plant-based diets—which, despite an increase in overall U.S. meat consumption, has jumped sevenfold since 2017.

“Everybody seems to have a different reason for eating plant-based foods,” says Kayla Beyer, founder of Deeply Rooted Farms. The plant-based protein manufacturer supplies a pea crumble to schools across the country that replaces ground beef “one for one,” without changing recipes.

The product checks many boxes including environmental, health, and animal welfare concerns, says Beyer, while helping schools respond to dietary, religious, and cultural restrictions. Unlike imitation meat burgers decried by environmental advocates for their heavy carbon footprint, the shelf-stable crumble requires minimal processing and ships dry, thereby lightening transport costs and freeing up refrigerator space. The low-allergen ingredient is also certified kosher and halal, “so it has broad appeal” in an understated way, she adds. “We want to normalize plant-based food and not stigmatize it.”

Revamping the Menu

Back in California, a new report from Friends of the Earth (FOE) finds that in the state’s 25 largest school districts, lunches are increasingly leaning towards inclusivity. The study, which reviewed changes in menus from the past four years, found that more than two-thirds now serve non-meat, non-dairy entrees at least once a week—a 50 percent spike since 2019. Additionally, more than half of middle and high schools offer a plant-based option every day.

“We were astonished to see the progress, despite 2020 being such a tough year for school nutrition services,” says Nora Stewart, FOE’s California climate friendly school food manager, who led the study, noting the unprecedented challenges in staffing and supply chains during the height of the pandemic.

Stewart points to a confluence of major state initiatives that helped propel the effort, starting with the Universal Free Meals Program. Along with nine other states, California has extended federal pandemic-era benefits to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students, regardless of income status.

Along with ensuring equitable meal access, the state has also made significant investments in school food policy reform aimed at improving the quality and sustainability of cafeteria menus. California’s $60 million Farm to School Incubator Grant Program, a first in the country, supports districts in sourcing organic and locally grown foods.

Additionally, the Kitchen Infrastructure and Training (KIT) fund allocates $600 million to upgrade school cooking facilities and train staff to expand on-site meal preparation. And a one-time $100 million fund helps districts implement these and other nutrition- and climate impact-minded measures.

The state support is invaluable to menu transition, Stewart says. While beans and legumes are cheap, procuring and transforming plant-based ingredients into appealing meals—ones that can compete with popular options—can be a challenge, she adds. And the USDA Foods program, which provides schools with subsidized meat, dairy, and other select commodities, covers a limited range of plant-based proteins such as beans and nut butters, “so the [state] funding helps to really offset some of those costs.”

Moises Plascencia, farm to school program coordinator in Santa Ana, says that the new programs help elevate plant-forward menus to a whole new level. The support for local sourcing allows procurement from farms within a 70-mile radius, giving the district access to a greater choice of fresh produce.

With a near-90 percent Latino population, ingredients such as tomatillos, Mexican squash, and herbs resonate with students, he notes, and lets kitchen staff “provide culturally relevant foods.” And that ups the appeal of any school lunch, he adds, “because then, you’re providing folks with things they want.”

Nevertheless, the tight $5 per-meal federal reimbursement rate often hamstrings budgets. “Nutrition service directors are hugely incentivized to use their pot of money on the USDA foods program,” says FOE’s Stewart, which ultimately skews the menu towards a heavy reliance on federally subsidized animal products.

Further south in Temecula Valley, limited budgets aren’t the only deterrent to embracing a full plant-based menu, says Amanda Shears, Temecula Valley Unified School District’s (TVUSD) assistant nutrition services director, in an email. Overall demand in the 27,000-student district—where nearly a quarter qualify for free and reduced lunches—is “minimal,” she adds, so “my goal is to design menus for everyone . . . using the resources and funds available.”

All district schools offer daily vegetarian options, but most contain cheese and dairy, says Ava Cuevas, a junior at TVUSD’s Chaparral High School. And the two vegan options—the bean burger and salad bar—are served in limited quantities, so they’re “sold out in minutes,” she adds.

As an animal welfare activist, Cuevas sees plant-based diets addressing a range of concerns, including climate impact and access to healthy food. She has also experienced food insecurity in the past, so the value of school lunches is not lost on her, she says. “Knowing that I can’t rely on [it] is definitely a distraction.” She’s stepping up her advocacy this fall—though until things change, she adds, “it’s [going to be] a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

Meanwhile, Shears maintains that “making more plant-based meals available is important to me,” noting that the district is trying to ramp up scratch cooking and local sourcing of fruit and greens. Yet her department faces pressing priorities: Since the pandemic, school kitchens have been “severely understaffed,” she says, and equipment and facilities need an upgrade to better accommodate onsite food storage and preparation. The state funds, she adds, will be definitely helpful in the endeavor.

Statewide, the FOE report found that beef, cheese, and poultry together accounted for more than two-thirds of school purchases through the USDA program. Plant-based protein, on the other hand, made up just 2.5 percent of the pie, despite representing 8 percent of menu offerings. The USDA is currently considering a proposal for expanding credit options to include whole nuts, seeds, and legumes, according to an agency spokesperson contacted by Civil Eats.

Not surprisingly, cheeseburgers and ground beef entrees are among the most popular lunch selections in California schools. Yet, because of cattle’s large methane footprint, those choices result in 22 times more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than tofu noodle bowls or a plant-based wrap, Stewart notes, and account for nearly half the climate footprint of all protein served at lunch.

And while pizza and other cheese-heavy dishes have only a quarter of the impact, the relative inefficiency of cheese production—it takes almost 10 pounds of milk to make a pound of cheese—still equate to sizable emissions, along with high water and land use requirements.

“We’re increasingly drawing the connection between food as a driver of climate change,” Stewart adds. With an enrollment of nearly 6 million students in California public schools, “even just a small shift [towards a plant-based diet] could have a profound impact” in reversing the course.

Yet revamping menus to steer schools in a plant-forward direction—and for that matter, a more nutrition-minded one—requires equipping them with adequate resources, says Brandy Dreibelbis, executive director of culinary at the Chef Ann Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes whole ingredient, scratch cooking and better nutrition in schools.

Investing in kitchen facilities and culinary training for staff is key to tailoring healthier meals, Dreibelbis says, and transitioning lunches away from processed heat-and-serve foods. “Cooking from scratch gives [schools] much more flexibility in their menus,” particularly whole ingredient, plant-forward ones. And other upgrades such as larger refrigerators can boost the procurement of fresh, locally grown ingredients, helping to truncate the supply chain and create more transparent connections to the food source.

As part of a national organization, Dreibelbis has seen progress in all 50 states, but California is way ahead of the game, she says, especially with the recent flood of initiatives. “There’s so much more momentum and progress [in the state] around school food in general.”

And ultimately, schools have an influential role in shaping the eating habits of their students—and steering the course of consumption towards more climate-conscious choices.

“It’s a big opportunity to make sweeping changes to our food system right now,” says SAUSD’s Goddard. “If the federal government [runs] one of the largest feeding operations on the planet, why shouldn’t that be a venue for change?”


Naoki Nitta wrote this article for Civil Eats.


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