California Thursdays: Making school lunches healthier one day at a time

Kids spend a majority of their childhood in school, which means a large number of their meals are eaten at school, too. In the case of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), 75% of students are eligible for free and reduced meal plans, meaning a majority of their student population is dependent on the meals provided by the school. But when menu options consist of unhealthy choices that lack fresh fruits and vegetables, these programs can take a significant toll on the health and academic performance of students.

In response to health and academic performance impacts, OUSD partnered with the Center for Ecoliteracy (CEL), a Berkeley-based nonprofit that supports sustainability education in schools, to incorporate more nutritious foods into their schools lunches. With funding from the United States Department of Agriculture Farm to School Program, the California Endowment, and the TomKat Charitable Trust, they were able to pilot “California Thursdays” in 2013, a program designed to serve healthy lunches made from California-grown ingredients. After a successful once-a-month trial period, California Thursdays was expanded to once-a-week and eventually received recognition from the California Assembly which proclaimed April 23, 2015 as “California Thursday” at public schools throughout the state.

In addition to providing healthier meal options, California Thursdays is also used as an educational opportunity to teach kids about where their food comes from. In fact, CEL and OUSD wanted to make sure that the kids were involved in the development of the program as well. Peer-to-peer taste tests and student-led discussions about the meals they liked and disliked helped the kitchen staff create meals that kids were actually going to eat. Taking into account the seasonality of produce, kids were introduced to new vegetables and recipes like bok choy or tabouli.

In order to make OUSD’s program the huge success that it has become, CEL helped them reconfigure their existing food service operations. Nutrition Services staff were connected to local farmers of fresh California produce and were trained on how to develop new recipes using those ingredients. Through CEL’s produce procurement network, participating schools are now able to access seasonal produce and feed their students vegetables and recipes they may not have tried before. Marketing campaigns were also developed to get school administrations and parents on board; although, by approving several million dollars worth of bonds that went towards improving their schools’ food systems, Oakland residents had already clearly demonstrated their support in the polls.

The city is also in the process of constructing The Oakland Unified School District Central Kitchen, Instructional Farm, and Education Center, called The Center, for short. The Center would complement Oakland’s California Thursdays program by providing an even more central location for schools across the district to access healthy school lunches and have a space to teach their students about urban agriculture.

Oakland’s success story has since paved the way for CEL to expand California Thursdays across 71 public school districts, serving nearly 2 million students statewide. In addition to providing healthier meals for their students, the program has also helped participating schools save money and decrease their environmental footprint by limiting their meat and dairy consumption and by purchasing from local providers that travel shorter distances and require less packaging.

For only being in effect for a few years, California Thursdays has proven capable of having a significant impact on our younger generations. The more younger generations learn about food now, the more prepared they will be to choose sustainable, healthy options in the future that may one day shift the dynamics of our food system. And maybe one day California Thursdays can become  California Everyday.

Sabrina Munatones

Sabrina Munatones is a fourth year Society and Environment Major and Japanese Minor. Her interests lie in food systems, sustainable living, and her dog.

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