In the past, the organic farms and distributors wouldn’t have had any entry point to participating in the school lunch bid process. Now, the companies were vendors in the system.
At Morgan Hill Unified School District 75 miles south, nutrition director Michael Jochner had also been on a mission to improve meals since 2018. And while he had already been shifting to more scratch cooking and plant-based meals, eliminating waste, and improving the quality of food (including sourcing some organic ingredients), COVID-19 waivers allowed him to bring on several new vendors.
“The pandemic freed me up to go bang on some farmers’ doors,” said Jochner. Since many of those farmers lost restaurant customers due to the shut-down, they had a lot to sell. “I know a lot of schools around me did the same thing. They started helping out the local scene a little bit more because it was easier.”
At West Contra Costa, Jellison found fruits and vegetables were generally the easiest foods to buy organic. In an Organic School Food Roadmap that Friends of the Earth put together based on seven California case studies, the report authors found that buying local, seasonal produce was one key strategy to bringing the cost of organic food down. At Frog Hollow, Courchesne has been able to charge the district less than $1 a pound for fruit he would sell to Whole Foods for $2.50 a pound by selling fruit that doesn’t meet the stringent aesthetic requirements that retailers demand. This includes fruit that is fully ripe (rather than slightly underripe, which holds up better in supermarket bins) and smaller fruits that aren’t perfectly uniform in size.
But in some cases, the pandemic also added produce-related challenges. In the past, Jochner and others used salad bars to get more fresh produce into cafeterias; COVID restrictions took salad bars off the menu. Jellison needed things like vegetable side dishes packaged into half-cup portions. “We haven’t found any [vendors] yet that do carrots, celery, or broccoli,” she said.
Policy advocacy by Friends of the Earth and other organizations did make it easier on one front: Getting more organic food into federal purchasing programs that provide schools with subsidized bulk foods, especially one called DoD Fresh.
“Until recently there was no organic available [in the program],” Hamerschlag said. “So we worked with the suppliers in both Northern California and Southern California . . . and we got them to add a whole slew of different organic products.” Between October 15 and December 15, 2021, the organization estimated the changes resulted in 80,000 pounds of organic food worth $100,000 making its way into the state’s school meals.
And while many schools have shifted to more plant-based meals as another strategy to hit climate goals and make buying organic more affordable, one of West Contra Costa’s biggest successes so far is in meat.
During the food box period, Mindful Meats, a Bay Area company that sells organic, grass-fed beef from retired dairy cows (and which merged with Marin Sun Farms in 2017), had supplied packages of ground beef to be sent home with families. But once the kids were in school, the district didn’t have the set-up to cook meat from scratch. So Jellison and Shils worked with co-founder Claire Herminjard to develop a pre-cooked burger patty.
“We went through lots of iterations and taste tests with the students and finally landed on a good recipe,” Herminjard said. “And the district is thrilled . . . knowing that there are no hormones, no antibiotics . . . no pesticides. [And they] very truly see the value in getting an organic and California-raised product to their schools.”
Here’s where the ripple effect comes in. Jennifer LeBarre, the executive director of meal service at San Francisco Unified, was adding organic food to her district’s menus little by little. But her district is almost wholly unequipped for scratch cooking, so organic meat was mostly off the table. Once Mindful Meats had a pre-cooked burger patty available, she jumped on it. And in this case, pandemic-driven inflation opened a window: As the cost of conventional burgers from vendors like Tyson Foods increased, the cost of Mindful Meats’ local, grass-fed burger stayed the same. For a moment in time, at least, the prices leveled out.
“If it’s costing me the same, I’m going to go with organic,” LeBarre said.
Most of the time, however, the burgers don’t cost the same, and even with the premium, Herminjard said it’s tough to make the margins work at the price the schools can pay. Mindful Meats is able to manage it, in part, by balancing the loss with expensive cuts of meat the company sells to restaurants. “Working with public schools really is a passion project. We do it because we believe in serving the community in this way, in getting organic beef to kids,” she said. “And we’ve gone up against these big packers in bid processes . . . and one of the gratifying things is knowing that we’re winning that business.”
Pre-cooked burger patties are not the only new organic food items that have emerged from this process. To serve the burgers, Jellison needed buns. Shils had established a partner in Petaluma-based Alvarado Street Bakery, which contributed bread to the food boxes. But the kids didn’t like the sprouted buns the bakery was already making. So the company began making a simpler whole wheat bun specifically for the schools.