California Thursdays Hopes To Change Students’ Health One Meal at a Time

A program to make school lunches healthier and more appetizing starts today in 15 school districts across California.

It’s called California Thursdays. The program is organized and managed by the Center for Ecoliteracy, a not-for-profit based in Berkeley. The idea is to help school cafeterias produce meals using local ingredients, or at least ones grown in California.  

“We call it a win-win-win,” said Adam Kesselman, manager of the Rethinking School Lunch program at the Center for Ecoliteracy.

“For one thing, that helps the local economy because schools are spending procurement dollars locally,” he said. “Plus you get better food, it’s fresher, you know where it comes from. The third win is you have healthier kids who are better prepared for school.”

The school cafeterias in those 15 school districts produce roughly 200 million meals a year, according to Kesselman. Last year, the Oakland school district served as a pilot and it went so well, Kesselman said, that the program is being expanded statewide. Some of the schools will start by having California Thursdays once a month with the hope of expanding the effort. About a third of the schools plan to operate the program weekly. 

“We call it a bite-sized implementation strategy,” Kesselman said. “When you talk about food system change in schools, that’s difficult. That’s big and really hard to change. But this is achievable and attainable and understandable.”

Kesselman said, in some schools, making sure they have fresh local ingredients is really just the start.

“In some cases, you also might need to teach them how to cook the food,” Kesselman said. “Sometimes we have to go in with knives and cutting boards, mixing bowls and measuring cups. There are a number of kitchens in districts that are not actually preparing food, they’re more heat-and-serve.”

Some of the facilities are antiquated, or don’t even have kitchens, Kesselman said.

“Preparing fresh food in schools has really diminished severely,” he said.

Many schools already have some kind of nutrition education program or school garden, so the awareness and interest in expanding nutrition education is there, Kesselman said.

“A lot of the districts work on these changes, but they don’t always know how to talk to the public about it,” which is where his organization can help, Kesselman said. “We want to make sure the community knows why this is important, the administration knows why it’s important and students know it’s happening.”

California Thursdays is supported the California Department of Food and Agriculture, The California Endowment, TomKat Charitable Trust, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Center for Ecoliteracy.

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