California Could Be the First Organic-to-School State

Healthy, organic, culturally appropriate food should be available to everyone, and especially California’s public-school students. With the state’s help, California’s schools can lead the way toward a better food system for all, from farm to fork.

Late last year, the Trump Administration rolled back a series of significant school food nutrition improvements passed during President Obama’s first term. Though the federal government is intent on going backwards when it comes to children’s health, here in California, we are moving full steam ahead to ensure that tens of thousands of California students who rely on free or reduced-price school meals have healthier options on their breakfast trays and lunch plates.

Today, Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D-Winters) introduced AB 958, which will create the first-ever Organic-to-School pilot program at the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s (CDFA) Office of Farm to Fork. The pilot will help schools purchase more California-produced organic food, offering up to 15 cents in additional reimbursement per meal for qualifying schools.

The bill recognizes that school food is an especially important source of nourishment for low-income students. At the same time, low-income communities across the state are burdened disproportionately by toxic pesticide use and often bear the brunt of climate change-related impacts. Accordingly, schools serving a high percentage of low-income children, situated near agricultural fields, and/or serving universally free school meals will get top priority for grant funding. The pilot program will also create new and welcome market expansion opportunities for California’s organic farmers and help advance the state’s climate mitigation goals by investing in organic agriculture practices that prioritize soil health.

In addition, the pilot program dovetails with Assemblymember Aguiar-Curry’s groundbreaking Farmer Equity Act of 2017. That legislation directed CDFA to ensure that the state’s work to promote agriculture includes socially disadvantaged farmers who have faced systemic discrimination based on their racial, ethnic, and/or gender identities. The pilot program will facilitate expansion of organic markets for these farmers by encouraging participating school districts to source from socially disadvantaged farmers.

Organic is one of the fastest growing sectors of the U.S. food economy, and the sector’s growth reflects increasing public demand for healthy and sustainably grown foods. Organic food is produced without most synthetic pesticides, and switching to an organic diet has been shown in several studies to decrease pesticide levels in people’s bodies in a short amount of time. In fact, a peer-reviewed study published last week in Environmental Research showed that on average, detected pesticide levels dropped by 60.5% after study participants ate an all-organic diet for just six days.

More organic food in schools will mean less pesticide exposure for California’s most vulnerable children. It also means fewer farmworkers exposed to toxic pesticides in their workplaces, more protection for honeybees and other pollinators, and more climate-friendly farms to help move California closer to reaching its climate action goals.

California leads the country in organic food production, and its schools are leading organic transitions too. For example, Conscious Kitchen’s pilot school meals program at Peres Elementary in Richmond brings hundreds of all-organic meals to a diverse student body every day, with plans to eventually expand across the entire West Contra Costa Unified School District. Winters has a robust farm to school program and sources a wide range of seasonal, organic produce from Capay Valley's Full Belly Farm. The Edible Schoolyard Project is partnering with CAFF to design an organic procurement framework that will benefit school districts throughout California; they are in early discussions on this concept with the Stockton Unified School District. And Encinitas Union School District even managed to create its own 10-acre certified organic farm to supply produce for school meals!

Nonetheless, funding remains a barrier to sourcing organic for most California public schools, in part because school district food budgets, infrastructure, and staff capacity are limited. Assemblymember Aguiar-Curry wants to help, by giving schools flexible funding for healthier organic foods, and creating new opportunities for the state’s organic farmers along the way.

Healthy, organic, culturally appropriate food should be available to everyone, and especially California’s public school students. With the state’s help, California’s schools can lead the way toward a better food system for all, from farm to fork.

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