New CA Program Can Deliver Organic School Lunches

By prioritizing procurement from organic farmers that avoid all or most pesticide use, our state’s farm-to-school program will also help reduce health risks faced by these especially vulnerable children. 

A group of children harvesting cucumbers, squash and peppers from a garden at their school, to be shared with those in need in the community.


State Farm via Flickr, CC BY 4.0

California piloted its first statewide Farm to School (F2S) program in 2021, awarding $8.5 million dollars in grants to school districts throughout the state, though demand was far higher. With an expanded $30 million budget and its second year of grant-making in process, our state’s F2S program is maturing into a multi-faceted effort to make our food system more equitable, healthy, and climate-friendly. 

Although California’s agricultural abundance is well known, our kids are not spared from hunger. In fact, far from it. One in seven California children, predominantly Black and Latino, are food insecure. Schools continue to be a lifeline for millions of students, and Farm to School makes the healthy, nourishing meals kids need possible. Meanwhile, California farming communities have among the highest levels of hunger and food insecurity in the state; children in these communities also live and go to school in places with high rates of pesticide exposure. By prioritizing procurement from organic farmers that avoid all or most pesticide use, our state’s Farm to School program will also help reduce health risks faced by these especially vulnerable children. 

New farm-to-school roadmap 

Last year, I had the opportunity to participate in the agriculture subcommittee of the California Farm to School Advisory Committee. The outcome of our collaboration is a new report called Planting the Seed, offering a robust roadmap with goals, priorities and recommendations to ensure that this new F2S program succeeds. The report highlights the many ways that F2S can be a fertile testing ground ​​to reshape not only the school food experience of nearly six millions California students but also which farmers and ranchers get to participate in school meal procurement programs.  

Farm to school programs are an engine of rural economic development, known to increase resilience in agricultural communities. The ripple effect is impressive: for every $1.00 schools invest in local food creates more than $2.00 in additional economic activity

What makes California’s Farm to School program unique is that in addition to contributing to our state’s economic resilience, it also aims to increase environmental resilience and racial equity by incentivizing schools to leverage two types of values-based procurement strategies: 

  • Purchasing from small or medium sized farms, and those operated by Latino, Black, Indigenous, and other producers of color who have historically been excluded from these types of initiatives;
  • Purchasing from producers using certified organic and other verifiable climate-friendly systems and practices.

These new procurement strategies can help level the playing field for historically underserved farmers and ranchers by helping them access new school food markets. It also helps California increase its resiliency in the face of climate change and associated environmental stressors by increasing opportunities for producers whose practices help sustain healthy soil, eliminate (or reduce) the use of fossil-fuel based chemicals, increase biodiversity, protect air and water and more.  

"[Farm to school] can help increase supply and demand for producers that sell organic products or use other climate smart agriculture practices” 

Planting the Seed: Farm to School Roadmap for Success, 2022

Continued investment in farm-to-school is essential

Governor Newsom’s January budget priorities for Farm to School reflect the exciting potential of this program. We urge the Legislature to support the $30 million proposed in the Governor’s 2022-23 budget for the Farm to School grant program as well as the $3 million in ongoing funding for 16 permanent technical assistance positions to ensure its successful implementation. These resources will allow the California F2S program to serve as a national model, help school districts bring healthier food to students, ensure stable supply chains for schools, and create much needed new markets for our state’s farmers.

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