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California Assembly Approves Nation’s First Plant-Based School Lunch Program

First-of-its-kind legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by incentivizing plant-based school food advances to State Senate

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – In a first-ever push to support climate-friendly school food, the California Assembly today approved legislation to provide new state funding to reimburse K-12 public schools for the costs of expanding their plant-based food and beverage offerings. Assembly Bill 479, which now moves to the State Senate, will also provide the staff training needed to help public schools boost participation rates and successfully serve plant-based foods. 

If signed into law, the bill, championed by Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian (D-Van Nuys) and principal co-author Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), would set a national precedent by incentivizing plant-based entrees in school lunch.

“We are enormously grateful to the California Assembly for taking this significant step to reduce the carbon footprint of public school food by voting to support plant-based options,” said Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and agriculture at Friends of the Earth. “The high cost to kids’ health and to the planet of our current food system is becoming apparent. We applaud legislators for committing to more climate-friendly menus, and for taking a big bite out of climate change while protecting school kids’ health.”

Research shows that healthy, protein-rich plant-based foods like lentils and beans are 26 to 34 times less carbon-intensive than beef. If every California public school switched from a beef burger to a plant-based burger just once a month, it would save 300 million pounds of carbon dioxide annually.

“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 that 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.”

“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.”

Many school districts including Novato, San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and Capistrano are reducing the carbon footprint of their food by increasing plant-based offerings, as documented in Friends of the Earth’s Scaling Up Healthy, Climate-Friendly School Food report. However, cost barriers remain for healthier, lower carbon footprint meal options since federal subsidies often make animal-based foods such as meat, cheese and milk more affordable than protein-rich alternatives such as pulses and veggie burgers. AB 479 will provide critical training and financial support to expand these menu offerings and encourage many other schools to follow suit.

The bill — which is endorsed by Friends of the Earth, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Animal Hope in Legislation and Social Compassion in Legislation — is supported by more than 70 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.

Expert contact: Kari Hamerschlag, (510) 207-7257, khamerschlag@foe.org
Communications contact: Haven Bourque, (415) 505-3473, haven@havenmedia.com

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