Healthier Meals, Happier Kids and a Better Planet

A recent webinar series, “Healthy, Climate-Friendly School Food: Strategies for Success,” hosted by Friends of the Earth highlights experiences of food staff and stakeholders in creating healthy meals for students. The final panel last Thursday, focused on a new report, “The State of School Meals in California”, that finds a significant disparity between California’s climate goals, advocacy by leading public health organizations, and the food actually being served. 

“School meals have a profound impact on the health and educational outcomes for students across the state,” says Kari Hamerschlag, Deputy Director of Food and Agriculture at FOE and co-author of the report. “In California school districts spend more than $1.5 million dollars a year on school lunches, providing 540 million school lunches to four million students, most of who are low income and students of color.”

Hamerschlag continues, that school meals are a critical intervention to promote healthy eating for students who lack access to nutritious food at home and healthy food can help address racial health inequities.

The food served in schools also has a large impact on the health of our planet. Animal agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the total carbon footprint of institutional food systems, says Hamershlag.

To meet climate goals outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), FOE advocates for climate-friendly cuisine, which “uses less and better meat“, says Debbie Friedman, a consultant for FOE. Friedman explains that climate-friendly meals are plant-forward, and better meat is made locally and sustainably raised. 

A climate-friendly school lunch example, shared by Friends of The Earth.

“We believe public funds should be harnessed for the public good”, says Kari. In the report on the State of California School Menus, FOE looked at school meals and the influence of the USDA Food Program, hoping to use this research to inform policy that will increase school nutrition. 

The report finds that the majority of school lunch entrees (94%) have animal protein. 16% of entrees contained processed meat, however these meals represented over 64% of the carbon footprint produced by school meals. Whereas, the small four percent of plant-based meals produced only 1 percent of the carbon foot-print.

Another shocking find from the report is the influence of big agriculture in school meals. Kari shares that USDA data from 2018-2019 found that 74% of entitlement dollars in California are spent on industrially produced animal products. Additionally, the largest meat and dairy conglomerates have monopolized the animal products for USDA foods – only three companies produce food for 70% of schools.

Policies and adequate funding for animal products and processed foods are a primary driver of K-12 meals, says Chloë Waterman, Program Manager at FOE. Lack of proper funding is a large barrier to helping schools introduce more nutritious climate-friendly meals. 

However, there are examples across California of schools stepping up to create healthy, plant-forward meals. A two-year analysis of Oakland school district by FOE finds that incorporating more climate-friendly meals saved $42,000 and increased purchases of fruits, vegetables and legumes by 10 percent.

FOE is working on multiple campaigns to advocate for healthier communities, including a climate friendly food program. The full webinar series can be found here. The Scaling up Healthy Climate-Friendly School Food guide, Organic School Food Roadmap, and more resources for creating and maintaining healthy meals for students can be found on FOE’s website. 

Sabrina Endicott (she/her)
Sabrina is a writer and advocate for sustainable food systems. Previously, she wrote for Food Tank on agriculture, sustainable farming and fishing initiatives, and the impact of climate change on food systems. She graduated from the University of San Francisco with a major in Environmental Studies and an emphasis in Sustainable Agriculture. Her passion for food and the environment has given her the opportunity to work in many sectors such as marine science, air pollution, urban farming and reforestation. 

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