California Legislation: Plant-Based School Lunch

First-Ever Legislation Incentivizing Plant-Based School Lunch Options Moves Forward in California

State bill enabling California’s schools to cut greenhouse gases and serve healthier food passes first legislative hurdle

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The California Assembly Education Committee has approved legislation incentivizing K-12 public schools across the state to offer healthier, climate-friendly lunch options. Assembly Bill 479 establishes a new California School Plant-Based Food and Beverage Program that would provide public schools with additional state funding for serving a plant-based entree and non-dairy milk.

The bill, championed by Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian (D-Van Nuys), was approved 5-0, and is the first of its kind to incentivize plant-based food in K-12 schools. While numerous school districts across the state want to increase plant-based offerings, many face cost barriers since animal-based foods and cow’s milk are heavily subsidized by the federal government relative to plant-based options.

“By replacing a portion of the millions of pounds of meat served each year with plant-based entrees, this bill will help California public schools reduce their carbon footprint while serving kids healthier food,” said Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and agriculture at Friends of the Earth. If every California public school swapped out a beef burger for a veggie burger just once a month, it would save 300 million pounds of carbon dioxide a year.

Research shows that healthy, protein-rich plant-based foods like lentils and beans are 26 to 34 times less carbon intensive than beef.

The bill, which is co-sponsored by Friends of the Earth, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Animal Hope in Legislation, and Social Compassion in Legislation, has received widespread support from more than 60 educational, food policy, public health, environmental, labor and animal protection organizations, including 10 school districts, the California Federation of Teachers and the California School Boards Association. The bill will now move to the Assembly Appropriations Committee before it goes to the full Assembly for a vote.

Hamerschlag testified this week at the hearing, along with Miguel Villarreal, school food director at Novato Unified School District in Marin County, California, where 38 percent of students qualify for a free or reduced-price meal. Villarreal urged support saying, “It is truly a matter of equity and food justice. I support AB 479 because every child deserves access to healthy, plant-based foods that can improve kids’ health and help them thrive in the classroom.”

“AB 479 will increase access to healthy food options for low-income communities and reduce our carbon footprint at the same time,” stated Assemblymember Nazarian, the bill’s lead author.

This measure also recognizes that California’s increasingly diverse student population has a wide variety of culinary traditions and dietary practices, which deserve greater attention. “Our state is a global microcosm with many different cultural needs,” noted Assemblymember Nazarian. “California’s school meal policy should not only reflect our diversity, but also incorporate the extensive research on the health benefits of plant-based nutrition.”

According to the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a plant-based diet has substantial health benefits. It can reduce the risk of diabetes, help manage weight and provide protection against cancer and other diseases. That’s why the American Cancer Society Action Network and the American Academy of Pediatrics, California support AB 479.

“Bringing plant-based meals to schools will help students establish healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime,” said Neal Barnard, M.D., president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “Not only do these foods help students stay focused and energized in the classroom today, but they also reduce long-term risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases.”

Under AB 479, eligible entrees must be free of animal products or byproducts, including meat, poultry, fish, dairy or eggs, to qualify for additional reimbursement. Schools are eligible to apply for reimbursement if they serve an increase in plant-based options from a baseline year. AB 479 also includes state support for critical staff training needed to help public schools boost participation rates and successfully serve plant-based foods.

As documented in Friends of the Earth’s Scaling Up Healthy, Climate-Friendly School Food report, many school districts across the state, including Novato, San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and Capistrano, are reducing the carbon footprint of their food by serving delicious, healthier plant-based entrees. AB 479 will provide critical technical and financial support to expand these menu offerings and encourage many other schools to follow suit.

Expert contact: Kari Hamerschlag, (510) 207-7257, [email protected]
Communications contact: Haven Bourque, (415) 505-3473, [email protected]

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