The State of School Lunch in California
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CalMatters, Transform school meals to nourish kids and create opportunities for farmers
Friends of the Earth’s Climate-Friendly School Food Program helps school districts make the shift toward healthy, delicious, plant-forward menus. The program provides technical assistance and marketing materials, supports student and community engagement strategies, and links school districts with the resources they need in order to be successful. Friends of the Earth also partners with school districts and NGOs to advocate for state and federal policy change. For more information or to request support on implementing climate-friendly food strategies, email [email protected].
As economic insecurity and our climate crisis intensify, and more than half of Americans suffer from diet-related disease, the need to make school food healthier, climate-friendly and accessible to all families is more urgent than ever. (1,2) In California, school districts spend more than $1.5 billion dollars a year to provide 540 million school lunches to over four million students, most of whom are low-income and students of color. (3,4,5) How these dollars are spent and the quality of meals served have a profound and long-term impact on health and educational outcomes for students, as well as the health of the planet. With low-income students and students of color at a higher risk for diabetes and obesity, school meals are a critical intervention to address racial and socio- economic health disparities among children who lack access to healthy food at home.
Food is at the heart of our public health and climate crises. Reams of scientific studies show that industrial animal agriculture plays a major role in driving climate change and diet-related disease. The scientific evidence is clear: eating less meat is vital to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and curbing the rates of chronic, costly, diet-related disease. (6) The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that we must dramatically reduce production and consumption of industrial animal products and change how we grow food to meet essential climate mitigation targets. (7) At the same time, eating less meat—especially processed meat — and more plant-based foods has proven effective in strengthening immune systems and fighting obesity, heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. Virtually every public health organization, including the American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, urge lower red and processed meat consumption for better health outcomes. (8,9,10) The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend teenage boys eat less meat and that all children increase their consumption of vegetables and plant-based proteins. (11) (See this partial list of public health organizations’ statements on the benefits of eating more plant-based foods and less meat.)
- Analyzed the ten most widely offered items and the relative frequency of meat and dairy-centric vs. plant-based lunch entrées offered on the menu at the 25 largest K-12 public school districts in California; (i)
- Examined California’s bulk food spending through the USDA Foods program, including the companies that benefit most from this taxpayer-funded program; (ii)
- Calculated the carbon footprints of top lunch entrées and estimated GHG emissions associated with California’s USDA Foods bulk food purchasing; and
- Makes policy recommendations to better align menus with public health recommendations and California’s climate and sustainable food procurement goals. (12)
What we found: The vast majority (94%) of school lunch entrées offered in California feature animal protein and 16% of entrées contain processed meat, while just 4% of entrées are plant-based. (iii) These findings suggest a significant misalignment with recommendations from leading public health entities to eat more plant-based foods and less meat, especially processed meat. The meat- and dairy-heavy menus are also at odds with California’s goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and creating a more climate-resilient food supply. (13,14) Our findings underscore the need for major structural and policy reforms in order to better incentivize school districts across the state and the nation to serve healthier, lower-carbon, more sustainably produced food. (See policy recommendations below).
School foodservice programs have the monumental task of satisfying kids, who are often accustomed to junk food, while also meeting nutrition requirements, staying within tight food budgets and maintaining high participation rates.
Despite these challenges, school food directors have made remarkable progress toward serving healthier, plant-based and organic food. Two of our recent reports—Scaling Up Healthy, Climate-Friendly School Food, and Organic School Food: A Roadmap for Success—highlight this progress. We applaud foodservice professionals, who work tirelessly to feed our children. This analysis is not intended to critique individuals or school districts, but instead to provide a compelling rationale and recommendations for the policy and structural changes needed to better align school lunch menus with leading public health guidance for healthy eating and with climate science. In order to achieve systemic reforms, we must broaden the coalition of stakeholders involved in policy advocacy and collaboration at the local, state and federal levels. The establishment of a new $8.5 million Farm to School Grant Program in California is an important step in the right direction.
The vast majority of meat and dairy in school meals comes from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), where animals are raised in crowded, unsanitary conditions before being sent to slaughter. Both CAFOs and slaughterhouses have a disturbing record of inhumane practices, poor working conditions, and substantial health and environmental damage, including toxic air emissions and water pollution. (15) This harm disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities that work in and live near these industrial facilities. Animal agriculture is also a major driver of climate change. Research shows that if we do not dramatically reduce meat consumption, emissions from animal production alone will prevent us from meeting the Paris Climate Accord target. (16) Intensive animal agriculture relies heavily on growth-promoting drugs and hormones, as well as routine antibiotics. Overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture has given rise to antibiotic-resistant pathogens, a major public health threat. (17) Factory farms are also considered a potential breeding ground for the next viral global pandemic. (18) Due to these harmful public health impacts, the American Public Health Association adopted a policy in 2019 urging federal, state and local governments to impose a moratorium on all new and expanding CAFOs. (19)
At the same time, childhood obesity rates are soaring, particularly among low-income adolescents and children of color— and overconsumption of meat, especially red and processed meat is linked to obesity. (20,21) Schools’ frequent offerings of cheeseburgers, pizza, chicken fingers and hot dogs does not help our children establish a lifetime of healthy eating; it only worsens our nation’s nutritional divide, putting millions of low-income kids and children of color at a nutritional disadvantage. After accounting for these externalized costs to our health, rural communities and the environment, these “cheap” animal products are not cheap at all.
Meat, dairy and plant-based foods sourced from organic and regenerative farming operations can help restore ecological balance and protect the health of farmworkers, rural communities, the air, water, soil, pollinators and other critical species. (22) Section IV of the report outlines key health equity, climate and cultural considerations for why schools should serve more plant-forward meals and why USDA Foods should purchase fewer industrial animal products and more organic and pasture-based meat and dairy. For more on the health and environmental benefits of organic food, see this Friends of Earth fact sheet: Why Serve Organic School Food.
Our analysis shows that the largest meat and dairy conglomerates have monopolized the USDA Foods market, which supplies the majority of animal products to California schools (see Figure 5). Tyson Foods, the biggest U.S. poultry producer, supplies 44% of all USDA Foods poultry purchased by California schools. Nationally, 15 companies take in nearly 60% of the $1.3 billion annual USDA Foods spending—and 13 of these are meat or dairy companies. (23)
By providing industrially produced meat and dairy at a highly subsidized price, the USDA Foods Program incentivizes school districts to serve products that run counter to student health and environmental sustainability and equity goals. According to one study, 70% of USDA commodity funds nationally were spent on just four foods—raw beef, mozzarella cheese, cheddar cheese and chicken. (24) These foods made up 88% on USDA Foods sent for processing, for entrée items such as hamburgers, pizza and chicken nuggets, foods that appear frequently on California school menus. More sustainable and healthful plant-based sources of protein, such as lentils, tofu and tempeh, cannot compete against these subsidized animal products and are not available through USDA Foods. To create widespread purchasing shifts that enable foodservice directors to prioritize their students’ health and the environment, USDA Foods must be restructured to support more plant-based protein foods as well as organic and regenerative meat from smaller-scale regional, independent producers.
Plant-based entrées are gaining popularity among students, (25) but they still represent a small portion (4%) of all entrées on California school menus. Adding plant-based or plant-forward (combined meat or dairy with plant protein) entrées to the menu can generate significant carbon savings and benefit student health, as well as accommodate the increasing number of students who are vegetarian or vegan for cultural, religious, health or ethical reasons. For a deeper dive into the nutrition and processing considerations associated with plant-based foods, Eat REAL has developed a guidance document for school foodservice professionals.
While the quality of the school meal program has improved in recent decades, our analysis finds significant opportunity for better aligning school lunch entrées with the scientific evidence on climate change and leading public health recommendations about healthy eating. California’s recent approval of the $10 million Farm to School program provides a critical boost to help school districts use their massive purchasing power to source healthier and more sustainable plant and animal-based products. The advocacy and coalition building that helped generate resources for this program must intensify and continue. (26)
We cannot ignore the enormous opportunity to reduce the climate impacts and improve the health of school meals by rebalancing menus to feature more plant-based proteins and more food from local and organic farms that use climate- friendly practices. Leading experts on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) make this clear: “balanced diets, featuring plant- based foods…and animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-greenhouse gas emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health.” (27) Making California school lunch more nourishing and balanced will require increased funding and sustained effort—including education, cultural shifts, marketing and policy changes at the district level, in Sacramento, in Congress and at the USDA. Below, we outline key policies that will help foster healthier, climate-friendly school food.
This report was written by Julian Kraus-Polk, consultant to Friends of the Earth, and Kari Hamerschlag, Friends of the Earth, with significant support and input from the Climate-Friendly Food Team at Friends of the Earth. It would not have been possible without the menu-level data gathering and analysis from Emma Finn, as well as the general support and guidance from Elizabeth Vaughan. Chloë Waterman, Christopher Cook and Lisa Archer also provided invaluable feedback and edits. Finally, for her creativity and beautiful design work, we thank Keiko Okisada.
For their supportive guidance, helpful reviews and edits, we thank Haven Bourque of Haven B. Media; Kristin Zellhart and Nora LaTorre of Eat REAL; Lena Brook from the Natural Resources Defense Council; Jessi Silverman and Meghan Maroney from the Center for Science in the Public Interest; Leah Carpenter and Jennie L. Hill, PhD of the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition; Lucy A. Hicks, a school nutrition and school finance consultant. We also thank Vince Caguin from Natomas Unified School District and Alex Emmott from San Francisco Unified School District for their helpful contributions.
All the findings, recommendations and any errors in this report are solely the responsibility of Friends of the Earth.