Groups Celebrate California’s Historic Investments in Plant-based School Food

California’s newly approved state budget includes first-of-its-kind funding for climate-friendly, plant-based school meals

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Last night, the California Legislature adopted a $300 billion budget that includes historic investments in the state’s school meal program to expand healthy, plant-based meal options. These investments include:

  • $100 million to support schools in procuring plant-based foods, as well as sustainably produced foods, California-grown foods, and foods to accommodate students with religious or other restricted diets.
  • $600 million to upgrade school kitchen infrastructure and to train and compensate foodservice workers, including to prepare plant-based meals and increase scratch-cooking, an important facilitator for expanding healthy, plant-forward menus.

 

With this budget, California becomes the first state to provide public funding for plant-based school meals. Despite immense progress from many California school districts and growing demand for plant-based options among students and families, most California schools lack plant-based options. A 2021 Friends of the Earth analysis found that only 4% of entrée options available in California’s schools were plant-based, with half of those being nut butter and jelly.

This funding follows a years-long effort led by Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian (D-Van Nuys) – and supported by dozens of school districts, student and parent organizations, and environmental, health and animal welfare groups – to create a new program (AB 558) to provide state funding to reimburse K-12 public schools for the costs of expanding their plant-based food and beverage offerings.

“I am very excited to see plant-based school meals included in this year’s budget. Having this optional program for schools, in addition to their existing meat and dairy menus, will allow for an inclusive selection for our students,” said Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian. “Many school districts across our state have a sizable student population that requires or wants plant-based or restricted diet options and cannot afford the sometimes-higher prices. This year’s budget is a sizable step towards empowering schools to respond to their students’ needs.”

“California’s historic investment in plant-based school meals will reduce the carbon footprint of public school food and expand access to healthy, culturally appropriate meals for millions of children,” said Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and agriculture at Friends of the Earth, a cosponsor of AB 558. “We are enormously grateful to Assemblymembers Nazarian and Kalra, Senator Skinner, and the many other legislators who have championed a school meal program that will build a healthy and just food system for this and future generations.”

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.

“A huge thank you to Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian for his persistence in championing the budget proposal to include funding for plant-based school meals and milks. This has been a multiyear effort by the Assemblymember, the cosponsoring organizations, and the thousands of supporters throughout California who made their voices heard,” said Judie Mancuso, founder and president of Social Compassion in Legislation, a cosponsor of AB 558. “We are grateful to see both the legislature and the Governor recognize the cultural shift towards plant-based choices by supporting our children to eat healthier, more climate-friendly, and humane diets.”

“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, also a cosponsor of AB 558. “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.”

Amy Halpern-Laff, policy director of Factory Farming Awareness Coalition, also a cosponsor, added, “We join our cosponsors in appreciation of Assemblymembers Nazarian and Kalra. We hope California’s model will inspire other states to provide plant-based school lunch options.”

Many school districts including Novato, Santa Ana, San Luis Coastal, Santa Barbara, Clovis, Elk Grove, Palo Alto, San Diego, Riverside, Vacaville, Tahoe Truckee, and Capistrano are reducing the carbon footprint of their food by increasing plant-based offerings. However, as documented in

Friends of the Earth’s Scaling Up Healthy, Climate-Friendly School Food reportfinancial and technical barriers remain for healthier, lower carbon footprint meal options. Federal subsidies often make animal-based foods more affordable than protein-rich plant-based foods and schools continue to struggle with labor and supply chain challenges. These investments will provide critical support for the many school districts across the state that are eager to expand their healthy and delicious plant-based meal offerings.

 

Contacts: Kerry Skiff, Friends of the Earth, [email protected], 202-222-0723

Nick Sackett, Social Compassion in Legislation, [email protected], 415-238-3179

Leslie Raabe, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, [email protected], 443-534-5803

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