Pandemic Disruptions Created an Opportunity for Organic School Meals in California | Civil Eats

Pandemic Disruptions Created an Opportunity for Organic School Meals in California

Early morning packing of organic school food boxes at WCCUSD's central kitchen. (Photo courtesy of Conscious Kitchen)

Barbara Jellison is on the lookout for an organic crouton supplier. The food service director at West Contra Costa Unified School District, just northeast of San Francisco, has found organic Romaine lettuce, chicken, and Parmesan cheese for the Caesar salad served at the district’s 53 schools, but she hasn’t tackled the croutons yet. Based on her success so far, it won’t be long.

Ingredient by ingredient, Jellison has been working to get more fruits, vegetables, and meats from organic farms into meals served by the district, where about three-quarters of the 30,000 students live in low-income households. Some meals—including teriyaki chicken and rice, a fruit and cheese plate, and pasta marinara—are entirely organic.

“It’s like the biggest puzzle, and every day another piece fits in because something amazing happens or a company says, ‘Okay, we’ll make this for you and we’ll make it at the price that you can pay,’” said Judi Shils, who partnered with Jellison to help with the transition through her local nonprofit Conscious Kitchen. “Every day is a transformation.”

This particular transformation began during the pandemic, when numerous disruptions to school food service inadvertently shook open doors that had been locked securely for years. The federal government loosened regulations that make it difficult for any supplier other than the largest conventional food companies to get their food into cafeterias. The federal and state government both sent extra funds to California schools to ensure children would not go hungry. And global supply-chain snags gave smaller, local farms a leg up; many of those farms in Northern California are organic.

To be clear, COVID-19 also introduced devastating challenges across the country for food service workers, students, and families that rely on school meals. It continues to do so in many places. But Jellison is one of several California food service leaders that was able to take advantage of the pause in standard operating procedures to shift toward what she sees as better food for her students. With Shils on her side, she was able to break serious (organic) ground.

And while all kinds of school food reforms have been gaining traction for years, Shils and like-minded advocates and organizations see homing in on organic foods as an easy way to bundle together multiple goals around improving the health and sustainability of meals. “There’s a whole host of reasons that we want to see more support for organic in school meals,” said Kari Hamerschlag, the deputy director of food and agriculture at Friends of the Earth, who has been working to get more organic food into schools since 2017. “The benefits of organic are significant in terms of climate, soil health, and reducing toxic pesticide exposure.” That includes exposure farmworkers face in the fields and that children, who are particularly vulnerable to chemical impacts, might encounter due to trace amounts of pesticides in food.

Now, despite challenges ahead, the infrastructure is in place to help Jellison and Shils continue to make progress post-pandemic, and the work has already begun to have ripple effects. “Those companies that we were connected to and supported us and we supported them through the majority of the pandemic . . . they’re learning how to work with schools and how to reformulate some of their items to meet our requirements,” she said, “and hopefully will be able to support other school districts in time.”

In other words, getting local organic farms and producers in the door in one district enables them to expand their reach to more students at more schools.

The West Contra County Case Study

Early school meal innovators like Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard focused on organic in their efforts, and the push toward organic meals has grown alongside other compatible school meal reform campaigns. Farm-to-school efforts can create pathways to buy produce from organic farms (especially in California, the country’s number-one farm state) and universal free meals lead to more funds for purchasing. Shifting to more plant-based meals saves money that can be spent on organic ingredients, and scratch cooking initiatives allow schools to buy raw ingredients in bulk to bring the cost of organic foods down. One 2020 study out of the University of California Berkeley found that about 30 percent of districts reported purchasing some amount of organic food.

And districts that have signed on to the Good Food Purchasing Program, like the San Francisco Unified School District, get points on multiple metrics, including environmental sustainability and animal welfare, when they switch from products like conventional yogurt to an brand like Stonyfield, which is where SFUSD gets its organic yogurt.

Shils’ model at Conscious Kitchen is based on bringing all organic, scratch-cooked, plant-forward meals to districts that serve a large proportion of low-income students. Since organic food is often priced higher at the grocery store and may be out of reach for the students’ families at home, she explained, school lunch presents an opportunity to serve them the healthiest food possible and level the playing field, while also shifting the food system in a more sustainable direction. “When you have hundreds of thousands of children needing to be fed, it creates a lot of leverage, and food prices go down, our land is healthy, the agricultural practices [are better for the workers], and we mitigate climate change,” she said.

She first implemented the model at Bayside MLK Academy and Willow Creek Academy in the Sausalito Marin City School District, with great success. But those two schools only serve about 500 mostly low-income students, combined.

West Contra Costa’s size presented a much bigger opportunity, and during the 2018–2019 school year, Shils piloted the model at one school—although it didn’t stick. Jellison said that, at the time, it felt unfair to her that one school in the district had better food than the others. Plus, she was dealing with other challenges related to lack of equipment, unhappy staff, and a financial deficit.

When COVID-19 arrived, everything changed. Instead of making hot meals for pick-up, waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) allowed her to begin distributing boxes of raw ingredients. Each box contained enough for three meals and one snack for seven days, and once things were up and running, Jellison’s team was distributing more than 20,000 boxes per week. Suddenly, they could give out things like whole pineapples and ground beef, which typical school lunch service couldn’t accommodate because of labor and equipment. “I thought, ‘Let’s get this box to the next level,’” she said.

In the fall of 2020, Jellison called Shils and asked if she wanted to help get some organic food into the boxes. Shils reached out to local farms and vendors including Full Belly Farm, Earl’s Organic, and Lundberg Family Farms.

One farmer she called was Al Courchesne of Frog Hollow Farm in Brentwood, California, roughly 50 miles east of the district. Using organic, regenerative practices, Frog Hollow’s 280 acres of orchards produce a wide variety of fruits—including cherries, peaches, pears, persimmons, and blood oranges—year-round. And Courchesne actually attended West Contra Costa schools as a kid. “I was keenly motivated from a personal point of view to take care of the schools in the district,” he said.

Frog Hollow’s retail and CSA demand had increased since the start of the pandemic, but the farm lost some business from channels like the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, which depends heavily on tourism. So Courchesne began sending thousands of pounds of peaches, nectarines, and plums to the school district. “As successful as we’ve been in terms of marketing our fruit across many channels, we never have enough demand. We were able to meet their demand, and of course we preferred selling to them.”

Many others did as well. Soon the district’s boxes included organic carrots, peanut butter, and black beans. By March 2021, 100 percent of the food in the boxes was organic, and when the program wrapped up in August, it had spent $17 million to send 10.7 million pounds of organic food home to low-income families.

“It was incredible to see what can happen during a pandemic, when all [the farms] needed was business and when all families needed was food,” Shils said, “And then I thought, ‘Okay, we’re going to go back to school someday. How do we keep the integrity of the supply chain in a district that has never had organic food?’”

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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.

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Meal by meal, Jellison is checking off each organic box. “Since we’ve gone back into the schools, we’ve made tremendous gains that we weren’t able to do during that pilot year,” she said.

The Future of Organic Food in California Schools (and Beyond)

Are those gains unique to West Contra Costa County or could they serve as a template for wider change?

It’s still an open question, but Jellison and Shils thinks it may be possible if more school districts worked with nonprofit partners. Having Conscious Kitchen as the trusted executor has taken the burden off Jellison at a time when most school nutrition professionals have barely been able to keep their heads above water.

“Most food service directors are up to their eyeballs, especially now, in regulations and they don’t have time to think,” Shils said. “Every community I believe could have a partner. There are lots of nonprofits out there.”

On the ground, Hamerschlag said interest continues to grow. Friends of the Earth is now working with dozens of schools on sourcing more organic food. A series of webinars the organization hosted recently to help schools implement the Organic School Food Roadmap drew around 400 registrants, she said.

However, tight budgets are an ongoing challenge. In California, political interest in farm-to-school initiatives championed by First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom have enabled some of these changes, because many local farms are also organic.

While 2019 state legislation that would have created a pilot program to incentivize organic purchasing in schools failed, Governor Gavin Newsom in 2020 invested $8.5 million from the state budget into a new Farm-to-School grant program. In 2021, West Contra Costa received a $227,000 grant through the program. Newsom increased the grant funding to $60 million for 2022, and advocates like Lena Brook at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have been pushing the administration to build more organic-specific incentives into the grants.

On February 15, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) released a draft Request for Applications that prioritizes funding for projects that “include California food producers who utilize climate smart agriculture practices, climate smart agriculture production systems like certified organic or transitioning to certified organic, or other regenerative strategies.”

That language was mirrored in the first “Farm-to-School Roadmap for Success” released by Jennifer Siebel Newsom and CDFA last week. The report specifically acknowledge that farm-to-school programs “serve as a powerful tool to build demand and expand markets for producers that use…verified climate smart agriculture production systems, including certified organic and transitioning to organic certification systems.” And one of the Working Group recommendations in the report emphasized that building relationships between schools and organic producers should be a priority.

Brook hopes that policy movement will help more schools follow West Contra Costa’s lead. “We can’t afford to be solving one problem at a time anymore. We have a climate crisis, various public health crises, biodiversity [loss], drought, wildfires, etc. Where do we put our investments in order to tackle more than one at a time?” she said. “For me, organic sits at the center of this.”

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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