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California Lawmaker Wants To Buy Organic For School Meals

Andrew Nixon / CapRadio

School lunch at Encina, 2017

Andrew Nixon / CapRadio

One lawmaker wants to put more organic food on California’s school lunch trays.

Under the bill, which would launch a California Organic-to-School pilot program, school districts could apply to the California Department of Food and Agriculture for an additional 15 cents per breakfast or lunch meal to buy organic produce, dairy, meat and eggs from California growers. The program would prioritize grant funding to schools serving low-income students, as well as those living in rural areas.

Nationally, school districts have a food budget of roughly $1.25 to spend on each free and reduced lunch, according to an estimate by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which sponsored the bill.

The operating costs of school meal programs vary throughout California, according to Cynthia Butler of the California Department of Education. Some of the key variables are labor, transportation and food costs. In addition, a school district’s kitchen capacity can limit the amount of fresh, unprocessed foods.

Lena Brook, NRDC director of food campaigns, says the pilot program would also support California’s climate goals, in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. She argues that organic farming is the only program that ensures big buyers — such as school districts — that there are good soil-health practices behind the food they purchase.  

"We know that farming practices like cover-cropping [and] crop rotation can help trap carbon [and] pull it out of the atmosphere. [T]his is a really important way, from a food system standpoint, that we can help mitigate climate change," Brook said.

Right now, the majority of school districts don't spend their budget on organic food because it usually costs more than products from out-of-state and conventional growers, according to Evan Wiig, communications director for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers. The group, which advocates on behalf of sustainable farming in California, supports the pilot program.

The state’s colleges and universities are not required to buy California-grown, let alone organic foods. So, opening the K-12 market to California’s organic growers would be “a huge leverage point to make systemic change to how our food is grown,” Wiig said.

Lawmakers supporting the bill are pursuing $2 million in funding. The state budgeted roughly $164 million to reimburse K-12 school districts for free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch meals for 2018-19 , according to figures from the California Department of Education.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated what reimbursements to school districts covers. The $1.25 is for each free and reduced lunch and does not include labor costs.

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