New report: California school meals fall short on health and climate goals with meat-heavy menus

Pandemic spotlights school food as essential to health and climate resilience as new state and federal bills tackle racial, economic, and nutrition disparities

BERKELEY, CA As kids return to pandemic-shuttered schools, a new report, The State of School Lunch in California, urges major policy shifts to better align school food menus with racial equity and climate goals, as well as public health recommendations on healthy eating. A first-of-its-kind analysis, the Friends of the Earth report offers substantial data to track progress towards healthy, climate-friendly school meals, recommending a shift to more plant-based entrees on kids’ lunch trays. 

The study analyzes more than 1,300 entrees from California’s 25 largest K-12 school districts, finding that despite improvements in overall meal patterns, cheeseburgers, meat pizzas, chicken nuggets and hot dogs are among the most widely served items on the menu. Only 4 percent of menu entrees were plant-based and 16 percent contained processed meat, which is considered carcinogenic by the World Health Organization.

“School food is a safety net for children who lack access to healthy food at home, especially for families with low income and for students of color,” said Kari Hamerschlag co-author of the report and Deputy Director of Food and Agriculture at Friends of the Earth. “At a time when good nutrition is crucial for immune system response and diabetes and obesity prevention –– key co-morbidities with COVID –– the report highlights the urgent need school food policy reform.”

The State of School Lunch report demonstrates with data how redirecting more of the massive purchasing power of the 1.5 billion California school lunch program towards healthy, climate-friendly food can help address a host of intersecting Biden administration goals around climate, racial justice, nutrition security, and resilient regional food systems.

Two state bills answer the report’s call for increased state investment in healthy school food. The California Plant-Based School Food and Beverage Program (AB 558) would provide plant-based school food incentives and training and School Meals for All (SB 364) would boost access by making school meals free for all kids in the state. At the federal level, the upcoming Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization creates opportunities for Congress and the USDA to better align school meals with the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans — particularly around minimizing processed meat and serving more plant-based foods like lentils and beans.

The report finds that many of California’s leading menu items are not just unhealthy for kids; they are unhealthy for the climate. In 2018-19 school year, California’s USDA Foods purchasing had an embedded carbon footprint of 1.1 billion pounds of CO2-eq — equivalent to the emissions of 110,000 passenger vehicles driving for a year. Animal products accounted for 96 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions associated with the foods purchased from USDA Foods, a program that drives meat heavy menus by providing low-cost subsidized animal products to schools.

“The USDA Foods Program is a huge barrier to serving healthier, more climate-friendly school meals,” said Hamerschlag. “Instead of providing healthy, climate-friendly foods, the USDA Foods program supplies schools with products like chicken nuggets, meat pizza and cheeseburgers. These foods have a low sticker price but a high cost in terms of kids’ health and the environment.”

The report finds that just a few large companies benefit from the heavily subsidized USDA Foods program, undercutting local producers. Just twelve companies accounted for roughly 70 percent of the meat and dairy sales in California and Tyson Foods supplies nearly half of the state’s school food poultry market. The report points to the need for continued state investment and greater support for California’s independent farmers and ranchers through the state’s new $10 million Farm to School Program.

“In this current system, California’s kids are losing out on nutrition while Golden State farmers struggle for economic survival. School food directors like me will keep working hard across the state to make school lunch more climate-friendly while supporting our California’s farming communities,” said Miguel Villarreal, a veteran school food director at San Ramon Unified School District. “We need more policy support to make our job easier, like investments in farm-to-school programs and universal, climate-friendly, healthy school meals for all.”   

Expert contact: Kari Hamerschlag, [email protected], 510-207-7257
Communications contact: Kaela Bamberger, [email protected], 202-222-0703

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