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Healthier options on the menu as California begins providing free meals for all students

Visalia Times-Delta logo Visalia Times-Delta 8/16/2022 Ali Tadayon

Egg white breakfast wraps, vegetarian ramen, gumbo, glazed carrots and organic cheeseburgers aren’t just trendy restaurant offerings — they’re on some of the breakfast and lunch menus at California schools.

With an influx of state and federal funding aimed at expanding access to school meals, California districts are ramping up food production, upgrading menus and using more fresh, healthy ingredients than before. School meals will continue to be free for all California students, as they have been since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Education leaders such as Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Alberto Carvalho hope that by ensuring all students get fed for free while at school, and improving the quality of meals, districts can combat food insecurity experienced by families in their area.

“It’s a human right to have your child fed every single day, no questions asked,” Carvalho said at a recent news conference. “So bring your children to school early enough for them to benefit from breakfast, tell them to walk the line and benefit from the free lunch and let’s enjoy it.”

Carvalho said his favorite new item on LAUSD’s menu was the kung pao chicken, which has a honey glaze and comes with brown rice and broccoli. He also tasted the district’s new cinnamon rolls, ramen bowls, smoothies, and yogurt and fruit breakfast bowls and said he enjoyed them all.

Families line up in Richmond to receive free summer meals provided by West Contra Costa Unified from a food truck the district purchased with grant funds aimed at upgrading school kitchen infrastructure © Ali Tadayon/EdSource Families line up in Richmond to receive free summer meals provided by West Contra Costa Unified from a food truck the district purchased with grant funds aimed at upgrading school kitchen infrastructure

The 2022-23 school year will be the first that California, along with Maine, Vermont and a few other states are promising to provide every child with free breakfast and lunch. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has reimbursed districts for providing free meals to all students. Before then, districts were only reimbursed for feeding low-income students enrolled in the National School Lunch Program.

The USDA’s universal meal program sunsets at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, though it will still reimburse districts for meals for low-income students. Starting this school year, California and the other states have taken it upon themselves to pick up the remainder of the bill to provide free school meals to all students. Democrats in Congress have proposed legislation that would expand students’ access to free school meals, and the USDA is increasing its reimbursement rates for free meals. The USDA has also invested millions in programs to promote partnerships between schools and farms, as well as to support districts to improve the quality of school meals.

In 2021-22, California lawmakers committed to allocating $650 million each year to the universal free meal program, as well as $54 million in the 2021-22 budget to supplement state meal reimbursements to districts. The 2022-23 budget provided an extra $600 million toward a grant program to upgrade schools’ kitchen infrastructure and $100 million for a grant program to promote the best food-procurement practices, such as buying California grown-produce and providing options for students with dietary restrictions.

West Contra Costa Unified, in the East Bay Area, used the extra funds to purchase a mobile food truck, and through a partnership with nonprofit Conscious Kitchen, the district receives fresh produce for scratch-cooked school meals. Conscious Kitchen works with schools to provide organic meals to students.

Some of West Contra Costa’s new menu offerings this year include spicy maple-glazed chicken, ham musubi and strawberry muffins.

Dominic Engels, CEO of Oakland-based healthy meal distributor Revolution Foods, which contracts with school districts throughout the country, said the public’s attention to nutrition has been growing over the past 20 years and that parents’ concern over how healthy school meals are is at an “all-time high.” Engels chalked that up to food-driven ads through social media.

“The world is tuned into what food does, and that has trickled down to schools,” Engels said. “That trend is going to continue.”

New to Fresno Unified this year is an app and interactive website that provides parents and guardians information on school meals for breakfast and lunch each day. The app shows an image and description of the meals, as well as nutrition and allergen information, according to a Fresno Unified news release. Some of Fresno Unified’s new meal items include cheeseburgers with USDA certified organic beef, tacos with bean or beef queso, and whole grain muffins.

“Providing healthy, appealing meals goes a long way to helping our students focus on their learning,” Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson said in a statement.

Barbara Jellison, the district’s food services director, said West Contra Costa Unified began sourcing more ingredients from Bay Area farmers for ingredients such as cheese, meat, fruits and vegetables as well as local bakers during the pandemic as supply chain issues caused delivery delays and surcharges from some large food distributors throughout the country. Some of those farmers had never sold to schools before, Jellison said.

“We’ve been really creative these last three years, and it’s improved our meal program,” Jellison said.

This year, the district’s goal is to have fewer prepackaged meals in an effort to reduce waste, Jellison said. The district calls meals they either cook at schools or serve on site “plate-it-up meals.”  The district has also been working over the past few years to cook more meals in-house as opposed to purchasing prepared foods. Last year, the district went from having around 30% of meals cooked by kitchen staff to around 70%, Jellison said.

“Kids like to see the freshly prepared meals and the variety,” Jellison said. “It takes time to get them on board because it’s different to them — some of the meals they haven’t had before. It does take time and education.”

Jellison said the key to getting kids to actually eat the healthier food options instead of things like pizza and hot dogs is offering a wider variety of meals to students and educating them on nutrition. The district also does taste testing for new menu items to get feedback from students and keeps track of what food items students gravitate toward or avoid in order to improve the menu.

USDA Undersecretary Stacy Dean said the “farm-to-school connection” is crucial to strengthening local food systems, and withstanding global supply chain and inflation impacts. Dean, who visited a summer meal drop off at West Contra Costa Unified, said the district is “leading the way” with its partnerships with local farmers, and that districts throughout the country should pay attention.

“Food is both a fundamental component of education and a fundamental component of local agriculture,” Dean said. “When you put those pieces together and make the connection between the local farmer and the school district, wonderful things can happen.”

Ali Tadayon covers West Contra Costa Unified School District and other K-12 topics.

This article originally appeared on Visalia Times-Delta: Healthier options on the menu as California begins providing free meals for all students

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