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Daily News Blog

08
Mar

Covid Leads to Transformational Moment for Launching of School-Based Feeding Programs with Organic Food

(Beyond Pesticides, March 8, 2022) A silver lining has emerged from the past two devastating Covid years, according to Civil Eats. A large California school district has used pandemic changes — in the regulatory schema of the federal and state governments, in supply chain function, and in available funding — to catalyze the transition to organic food in school-based feeding programs. For the past decade or so, U.S. school districts have, here and there, been moving gradually in this direction. The West Contra Costa Unified School District (WWCUSD) is robustly making the transition to organic, in no small part through its collaboration with Conscious Kitchen, a local nonprofit that seeks to “break the cycle of conventional, packaged, overly processed food, [and] transitioning to meals based on five foundational attributes: fresh, local, organic, seasonal and nutritious.” Beyond Pesticides has long pointed to the importance of shifting school-based meals to organic for multiple reasons, but centrally, because the pesticides with which conventional food is generally contaminated have outsized health and developmental impacts on children.

The WWCUSD, which is northeast of San Francisco, boasts 30,000 students — 75% of whom come from low-income households. The district’s food service director, Barbara Jellison, and other food service leaders in the state have seized the moment of Covid disruption and the “pause” in standard operating procedures to shift toward what she sees as better food for her students. Food service in many, if not most, schools in the U.S. was turned upside down with the twists and turns of navigating Covid protocols amid remote learning, hybrid learning, and in-person learning, as well as constantly changing attendance patterns, masking requirements, and staffing shortages, among other factors.

In addition, as Civil Eats reports, “numerous disruptions loosened regulations that [have made] 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.”

As Covid arrived, WWCUSD’s food service teams first made hot meals available for pick-up by low-income families. That then shifted, because of a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) waiver, to distribution of boxes of raw ingredients — with enough ingredients for a week’s worth of three daily meals plus snacks. In the fall of 2020, when the district was in remote mode, Ms. Jellison called Judi Shils of Conscious Kitchen to ask for help. She wanted to shift at least some of the contents of the food boxes to organic.

Ms. Shils contacted some of those local Northern California organic farms and food vendors, including Full Belly Farm, Earl’s Organic, and Lundberg Family Farms, and the organic transition was soon under way. In short order, Ms. Jellison’s team was distributing more than 20,000 boxes each week, and could provide items such as ground beef, beans, grains, fruits, and vegetables. By March 2021, the food boxes were 100% organic, and the district had invested $17 million in the purchase of 10.7 million pounds of organic food for students’ low-income families. The Conscious Kitchen website provides an excellent array of infographics and other information on the program here.

Civil Eats notes Ms. Shils’s comment: “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. 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?’” Previously, such small organic producers would have had little chance of participating in the school lunch bid process because USDA regulations made it difficult for suppliers other than large, conventional food processors/companies to get a foot in the cafeteria door. Now, all these small, organic producers had become vendors in the system. This has had knock-on effects on local organic growers and producers, many of whom had lost wholesale restaurant and other accounts because of lowered demand during the pandemic.

Another salutary outcome of the push for organics in schools was their introduction into federal food purchasing programs, and especially into one called “DoD Fresh.” With the full and unwieldy moniker, “U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Department of Defense (DoD) Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program,” DoD Fresh had historically had no organics available in the subsidized, bulk food program for schools; policy advocacy by Friends of the Earth and other organizations changed that.

Deputy director of food and agriculture at Friends of the Earth (FOE), Kari Hamerschlag, commented, “Until recently there was no organic available [in the program]. 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.” Civil Eats reports FOE’s estimate that, in a three-month period in late 2021, that change resulted in 80,000 pounds of organic food (worth $100,000) showing up in California school-based meals.

So, though further progress will not be free of challenges, the two women believe they have sufficient sourcing and coordination infrastructure and protocols in place so that what they have accomplished can be replicated in other districts. Ms. Shils notes that already, they can see 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, and hopefully will be able to support other school districts in time.”

One example of that ripple was the work Ms. Shils and Ms. Jellison did with Mindful Meats (purveyor of organic, grass-fed beef from retired dairy cows) to develop a pre-cooked burger patty that would work once students returned to in-person school. That burger was then added to the repertoire of food service in the San Francisco Unified school district, which lacks “from scratch” cooking facilities. Then came sourcing of organic burger buns from Alvarado Bakery. Item by item, districts are ratcheting up the organic content of school meals. Ms. Jellison “is checking off each organic box,” according to Civil Eats; she adds, “Since we’ve gone back into the schools, we’ve made tremendous gains that we weren’t able to do during that pilot year.”

The women believe that the best path for districts in this pursuit is to partner with nonprofits working in the sector. For WWCUSD, the partnership with Conscious Kitchen was transformative, allowing an already stressed and challenged food service system to make significant headway. Ms. Shils commented, “Most food service directors are up to their eyeballs, especially now, in regulations and they don’t have time to think. Every community I believe could have a partner. There are lots of nonprofits out there.”

A focus on getting organics into school feeding programs has been afoot for years, and has proponents in multiple places, including in Congress and in state houses. A 2020 study out of the University of California Berkeley found that roughly 30% of school districts in the state are purchasing some organic food items. Farm-to-School nonprofits and programs have sprouted up in many states, and USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service conducts a grant program for such initiatives. The California Department of Food & Agriculture recently published its report on the farm-to-school movement, Planting the Seed, which provides guidance on how to expand, support, and strengthen such programs in the state.

The report emphasizes the potential for such programs to address multiple critical issues, noting 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.” Civil Eats notes that one of the report’s working groups recommended that building relationships between organic producers and schools should be a top priority.

Multiple school districts across the nation — in Boston, New York City, Buffalo, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, Denver, Austin, Chicago, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and a few others — are working with the nonprofit Center for Good Food Purchasing to move the needle on organic purchasing. The center “uses the power of procurement to create a transparent and equitable food system that prioritizes the health and well-being of people, animals, and the environment. We do this through the nationally networked adoption and implementation of the Good Food Purchasing Program by major institutions.”

The mission is shared and is being advanced by many advocacy organizations, as well — including Beyond Pesticides. Ms. Hamerschlag of FOE, who has worked for half a decade on getting more organic food into schools, comments, “The benefits of organic are significant in terms of climate, soil health, and reducing toxic pesticide exposure.”

Beyond Pesticides has written often about the many upsides of organic food production and consumption, which advance multiple health and environmental goals: reduced health harms to children and farmworkers from synthetic pesticide and fertilizer use, improved health outcomes for children and adults (including lowered obesity rates), reduction of environmental/ecosystem and biodiversity degradation, and greater equity for environmental justice communities and populations.

Indeed, the whole Conscious Kitchen model is based on getting “all-organic, scratch-cooked, plant-forward meals to districts that serve a large proportion of low-income students.” Ms. Shils notes that because organic food often costs more than conventional food (i.e., food raised with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers), it can be economically infeasible for some students’ families to purchase organic. Thus, school lunch is an opportunity to provide the most healthful possible fare for students.

She emphasizes that this helps rebalance the equity scales and shifts the local 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,” Ms. Shils commented. Conscious Kitchen generated a case study of the WWCUSD initiative — Organic, Plant-Forward, Scratch-Cooked School Meals: A California Case Study.

Lena Brook of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has advocated with California state government agencies to integrate more organic-specific incentives into their grants programs, notes: “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? For me, organic sits at the center of this.”

Beyond Pesticides concurs. To learn more about the harms of pesticides in children’s diets, and the benefits of organic foods, see the Factsheet, Children Need Organic Food, and these webpages: Kids Who Eat Organic Food Score Higher on Cognitive Tests, Health Benefits of Organic Agriculture, Study Shows Organic Food Diet Reduces Residues of Glyphosate in Body, and Hazards of Pesticides for Children’s Health, among others.

Source: https://civileats.com/2022/02/28/coronavirus-pandemic-disruptions-organic-school-food-meals-opportunity/

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

 

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