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November 4, 2014 > Serving fresh California food

Serving fresh California food

Submitted By Paula Hamilton

Tens of thousands of California students sat down to a surprise on October 23: a meal made from foods grown in California and prepared freshly just for them. And, if organizers of California Thursdays are successful, this will become a regular part of menus for students across the state.

Fifteen school districts Ð large, small, urban and rural Ð that collectively serve over 190 million school meals a year participated in the pilot statewide rollout. The program is predicated on the simple logic that California children will benefit from more fresh, California fruits and vegetables.

But implementation of California Thursdays is far from simple. Food service directors have invested thousands of hours to reform an entrenched, centralized food system that ships produce around the nation, sometimes moving California produce to Chicago and other distant locations before returning it, highly processed, to California. Added to that are the challenges of creating recipes that kids enjoy and that meet federal standards, finding local farmers who can supply school districts, training staff to cook and serve fresh meals, and encouraging students to try them.

Why bother? These innovative food service directors, in collaboration with the nonprofit Center for Ecoliteracy, know that buying, preparing, and serving local California food is a triple win. ÒWhenever we serve fresh, locally grown food to children with these recipes, they devour it,Ó says Zenobia Barlow, Executive Director of the Center for Ecoliteracy. ÒThat alone is a victory. Properly nourished children are healthier and ready to learn. Additionally, California Thursdays benefits local economies and the environment.Ó

Students in every corner of the state enjoyed menus featuring healthy, student-tested recipes cooked onsite from scratch with local ingredients. Options ranged from fresh Chicken Fajita Rice Bowls to Asian Noodles with Bok Choy to Penne with Chorizo and Kale.

School districts pioneering the dayÕs California Thursdays program include large urban districts such as Los Angeles, Oakland, Riverside, San Diego, and San Francisco, as well as suburban and rural districts such as Alvord, Coachella, Conejo Valley, Elk Grove, Hemet, La Honda-Pescadero, Lodi, Monterey Peninsula, Oceanside and Turlock.

Funded with grants from the California Department of Food and AgricultureÕs Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, The California Endowment, TomKat Charitable Trust, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Center for Ecoliteracy donors, California Thursdays was originally developed and successfully piloted with Oakland Unified School District last year. The program includes scaled recipes, staff training and procurement guidelines to assist schools in their transition to a healthier, more sustainable meal program, as well as resources for teachers and community engagement assets.

The Center for Ecoliteracy and its partners are planning to expand October 23rdÕs California Thursday to a weekly program and invite more school districts to participate.
For more information about California Thursdays or to learn how new school districts can join this program, visit

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