Organic burger

Pandemic disruptions have created an opportunity for organic school meals in California

Barbara Jellison is looking for a supplier of organic croutons. The director of food services at the West Contra Costa Unified School District, just northeast of San Francisco, found organic romaine lettuce, chicken and Parmesan cheese for the Caesar salad served at all 53 schools in the district, but she didn’t haven’t touched on croutons yet. Based on its success so far, it won’t be long.

Ingredient by ingredient, Jellison strived to get more fruits, vegetables and meats from organic farms into meals served by the neighborhood, where about three-quarters of the 30,000 students live in low-income households. Some meals, including teriyaki chicken and rice, a fruit and cheese plate, and marinara pasta, are all organic.

“It’s like the biggest puzzle, and every day another piece fits in because something amazing happens or a company says, ‘Okay, we’ll do it for you and we’ll do it for you. will do at the price you can afford,” said Judi Shils, who has partnered with Jellison to help with the transition through her local nonprofit. Conscious cooking. “Every day is a transformation.”

This particular transformation began during the pandemic, when numerous school catering service disruptions inadvertently rattled open doors that had been securely locked for years. The federal government has relaxed regulations that make it difficult for any supplier other than the largest conventional food companies to get their food into cafeterias. Both the federal and state governments sent extra funds to California schools to make sure kids wouldn’t go hungry. And global supply chain issues have given small local farms a boost; many of these Northern California farms are organic.

Judy Shils of Conscious Kitchen. (Photo courtesy of Conscious Kitchen)

To be clear, COVID-19 has also introduced devastating challenges across the country for food service workers, students, and families who rely on school meals. It continues to do so in many places. But Jellison is one of many California restaurant leaders who have been able to take advantage of the break in standard operating procedures to switch to what she sees as better food for her students. With Shils by her side, she was able to seriously innovate (organically).

And while all sorts of school food reforms have been gaining traction for years, Shils and like-minded advocates and organizations see a focus on organic foods as an easy way to bundle multiple goals around improving health. and sustainability of meals. “There’s a whole host of reasons why we want to see more support for organic in school meals,” said Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and agriculture at Friends of the Earth, which has been working to introduce more organic foods to schools since 2017. “The benefits of organic are significant in terms of climate, soil health and reducing exposure to toxic pesticides.” This includes the exposure that agricultural workers face in the fields and that children, who are particularly vulnerable to chemical impacts, could encounter due to trace amounts of pesticides in food.

Bringing local organic farms and producers to a district allows them to expand their reach to more students in more schools.

Now, despite the challenges ahead, the infrastructure is in place to help Jellison and Shils continue to make progress post-pandemic, and the work has already started to have ripple effects. “These companies that we were connected with and supported us and we supported them through most of the pandemic. . . they’re learning to work with the schools and redesign some of their elements to meet our requirements,” she said, “and hopefully will be able to support other school districts in time.

In other words, bringing local organic farms and producers to a district allows them to expand their reach to more students in more schools.

The West Contra County Case Study

Early school meal innovators like Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard focused organic in their efforts, and the push for organic meals grew alongside other compatible school meal reform campaigns. Farm-to-school efforts can create pathways to purchase produce from organic farms (especially in California, the nation’s top agricultural state) and universal free meals lead to more funds for purchase. Switching to more plant-based meals saves money that can be spent on organic ingredients, and scratch kitchen initiatives allow schools to buy raw ingredients in bulk to reduce the cost of food biological. A study 2020 from the University of California, Berkeley found that about 30% of districts reported buying some amount of organic food.

And districts that have joined the Good Food Purchasing program, like the San Francisco Unified School District, get points on multiple metrics, including environmental sustainability and animal welfare, when they switch from products like conventional yogurt. to a brand like Stonyfield, which is where SFUSD gets its organic yogurt.

Shils’ model at Conscious Kitchen is based on bringing all organic, hand-cooked, and plant-based meals to districts that serve a large proportion of low-income students. Since organic foods often cost more at the grocery store and may be out of reach for students’ families at home, she explained, the school lunch provides an opportunity to serve them the healthiest foods. possible and level the playing field, while moving the food system in a more sustainable direction. “When you have hundreds of thousands of children to feed, that creates a lot of leverage, and food prices go down, our land is healthy, farming practices [are better for the workers]and we mitigate climate change,” she said.

She first implemented the model at Bayside MLK Academy and Willow Creek Academy in the Sausalito Marin City School District, with great success. But those two schools only serve about 500, mostly low-income students, combined.

West Contra Costa’s size offered a much bigger opportunity, and in the 2018-19 school year, Shils piloted the model at a school, though it didn’t stick. Jellison said at the time it seemed unfair to him that one school in the district had better food than the others. In addition, she faced other challenges related to lack of equipment, disgruntled staff, and financial shortfall.

When COVID-19 arrived, everything changed. Instead of making hot take-out meals, US Department of Agriculture (USDA) waivers allowed it to begin distributing boxes of raw materials. Each box contained enough for three meals and a snack for seven days, and once everything was up and running, Jellison’s team was distributing more than 20,000 boxes a week. Suddenly they could dispense things like whole pineapples and ground beef, which the typical school lunch service couldn’t offer due to labor and equipment. “I was like, ‘Let’s take this box to the next level,'” she said.

In the fall of 2020, Jellison called Shils and asked if she wanted to help put organic food in the boxes. Shils contacted local farms and suppliers, including Full Belly Farm, Earl’s Organic and Lundberg Family Farms.

Products from the first 100% organic school food box.  (Photo courtesy of Conscious Kitchen)

Products from the first 100% organic school food box. (Photo courtesy of Conscious Kitchen)

One farmer she called was Al Courchesne from Farm Hollow Frog in Brentwood, Calif., about 50 miles east of the district. Using organic and regenerative practices, Frog Hollow’s 280 acres of orchards produce a wide variety of fruits, including cherries, peaches, pears, persimmons and blood oranges, all year round. And Courchesne actually attended schools in West Contra Costa as a child. “I was very motivated from a personal perspective to take care of the schools in the district,” he said.

Frog Hollow’s retail and CSA demand had increased since the pandemic began, but the farm has lost some canal businesses like the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, which relies heavily on tourism. So Courchesne began sending thousands of pounds of peaches, nectarines, and plums to the school district. “As successful as we have been in terms of marketing our fruit through many channels, we never have enough demand. We were able to meet their demand, and of course we preferred to sell to them.

Many others have done it too. Soon the boxes in the district included organic carrots, peanut butter and black beans. As of March 2021, 100% of the food in the boxes was organic, and when the program ended in August, it had spent $17 million to send 10.7 million pounds of organic food to families in low income.

“It was amazing to see what can happen during a pandemic, when everyone [the farms] what the families needed was stuff and when all the families needed was food,” Shils said, “And then I thought, ‘Okay, we’re going back to school one day. How can we maintain supply chain integrity in a district that has never had organic food? »