Nearly 1 million students in California, including in Los Angeles, will be test subjects for an experimental school food approach – feeding them freshly prepared, locally grown foods. It’s part of a statewide pilot program called California Thursdays that seeks to do something audacious – serve California food to California students. The kickoff is Thursday, Oct. 23.
What seems like a no-brainer has actually taken months of preparation and the collective effort of 15 school districts, the California Department of Food and Agriculture and a nonprofit advocacy group. Before California Thursdays, many schools were only equipped to serve highly processed, microwavable meals. That meant that fresh California vegetables were shipped out of state to places like Chicago, cooked into prepared meals, frozen and shipped back to state school districts. Makes a lot of sense, huh? (And yes, there are billions of corporate food dollars at stake.)
Starting this week, these districts will pilot a program that defies this massive and entrenched food supply system, ditching the microwave for the first time in decades. Including the LAUSD, a total of 1,767 schools in San Francisco, San Diego, Sacramento and a dozen other communities will be participating in the pilot program. Collectively, the 15 school districts serve 190 million meals a year.
According to organizers of the pilot program, thousands of hours have been invested to develop and taste-test recipes with students, retrain staff on how to cook and store raw chickens and other fresh ingredients and work with local growers to supply enough fruits, vegetables, proteins and grains.
The Center for Ecoliteracy, a nonprofit that advances ecological education in K-12 schools, is behind the initiative. “Whenever we serve fresh, locally grown food to children with these recipes, they devour it,” says Zenobia Barlow, executive director of the center. “That alone is a victory. Properly nourished children are healthier and ready to learn. Additionally, California Thursdays benefits local economies and the environment.”
Some menu choices include fresh chicken fajita rice bowls, Asian noodles with bok choy, and penne with chorizo and kale.
“California Thursdays is a great first step in celebrating all that California agriculture has to offer,” says California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross. “It brings awareness to the fresh, wholesome and seasonally appropriate bounty of our great state. If we feed our children good, healthy food, if we connect them back to the place and the people and the practices that it came from, I think we're going to have great decision-makers in our future.”
California Thursdays was originally developed and successfully piloted with Oakland Unified School District last year. The LAUSD serves 128 million meals annually — 300,000 lunches a day — to 651,300 students in 1,309 schools, so the program could make a big impact here.
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The Center for Ecoliteracy and its partners are planning to expand today’s California Thursday to a weekly program and invite more school districts to participate. In Oakland last year, for example, California Thursdays began as a once-a-month program and transitioned to every Thursday within a school year.
But are the cookies freshly made, too? That's a key question.