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Healthy, Locally-Grown Meals at CA Schools? It Must Be Thursday.

Laura E. Saponara serves as a Senior Communications Consultant for Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit.

In an Earth Day activity called Food Miles, fifth graders at Cleveland Elementary in Oakland, CA, calculated that the asparagus served in their lunchroom had traveled 17,000 miles – from South America to China to Oakland – before arriving in their mouths.  The kids were amazed. For Jennifer LeBarre, Director of Nutrition for Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), the realization was stunning, especially since the Asparagus Capital of the World sits just 60 miles from Oakland.

Student taste-testing figures prominently in decision-making by many of the nutrition directors who are part of California Thursdays. These Oakland students are tasting snacks made from local produce.
Student taste-testing figures prominently in decision-making by the nutrition directors mentioned in this article. On Earth Day in Oakland, these boys weighed in on snacks made from local produce.

In Oakland and communities across the country, awareness of the positive health impacts of fresh healthy food is blossoming at the same time determination to address childhood diabetes and obesity is becoming entrenched. School-community models and partnerships, including the Farm to School movement, are increasingly seen as part of the solution.

OUSD was the first to test one such partnership, created to get fresh healthy food into school lunchrooms while supporting sustainable food systems.  Through California Thursdays, a collaboration between OUSD and the Berkeley-based Center for Ecoliteracy (CEL), the district began to offer one fresh, California-grown meal to students on Thursdays in 2013.  It went well.  LeBarre soon expanded the program to one full day per week.

Scaling up

In 2014, CEL busted out, expanding the collaboration to 14 additional school districts, including Los Angeles Unified (with 1,087 school sites), Elk Grove, San Francisco and San Diego – 4 of the 6 largest districts in the state.  Each district aims to serve one freshly prepared school meal featuring locally-grown fruits and vegetables each week.

California Thursdays™ from Center for Ecoliteracy on Vimeo.

Has the Center for Ecoliteracy been working on this “issue” for 20 years? Yes. But still, California Thursdays appears to be an overnight success in that millions of children are, as of 2014, getting healthier food regularly.

Chris Smith, CEL’s program and resource development director, credits food service directors with the early success.

“They have to run these very complicated businesses with financial imperatives,” says Smith, sounding somewhat astounded himself. “And they’re the ones demonstrating the possibilities of changing the school food system.”

Small bites

The secret to California Thursdays is “bite-sized implementation strategies” chosen by school staff. Even small changes require shifts throughout school nutrition services operations.  CEL assists each district with professional development, connects nutrition services with local farmers and producers and collaborates on menu planning and recipe development.

The message that school food can be both delicious and nutritious is not always an easy sell, so CEL creates compelling “turnkey” marketing materials schools can use to build support among students, parents, and district staff members and administrators.

“Changing the perception of school food is the hardest thing we deal with,” says Gary Petill, who is responsible for serving 26 million meals a year to students in San Diego.

Scott Soiseth, the advertising-savvy director of child nutrition at Turlock Unified School District, is serious about making healthy food appealing to kids.  A couple of years ago he began to brand healthier choices with the words “real.fresh.” and created a spiffy graphic look.  The inspiration came from Soiseth’s desire to upgrade the reputation of school food, which TUSD students tended to describe as “slop.” Now he’s extended “real.fresh” to California Thursdays.

CEL has produced materials to help “market” California Thursdays with stories, facts and messages about why fresh local food is better and how we can work together to make transformations happen.  Making the Case is aimed at school administrators. Five Things Parents Can Do helps parents take initiative in advocating for their districts to make healthier, tastier food available to kids. A more comprehensive resource is The Rethinking School Lunch Planning Framework10 Things You Can Do to Rethink School Lunch is a cheat sheet for the time-challenged.

Will California Thursdays continue to scale up?  CEL has just received a new grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to enable expansion to more districts in 2015.   More broadly, the USDA has just announced its support of a new pilot program designed to allow seven more states to increase  purchases of locally-grown fruits and vegetables for their school meal programs.

The future is looking less bright for pizza pockets and deep-fried burritos.  Creamy avocados, juicy plums and fresh-picked strawberries are seeing more limelight, along with dishes like pasta with fresh greens and chicken fajita rice bowls.   If bok choy is all over Pinterest next year, thank a school nutrition director!

Behind the Scenes

California Thursdays is supported by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, The California Endowment, TomKat Charitable Trust, US Department of Agriculture, and Center for Ecoliteracy donors.

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