Additionally, the Kitchen Infrastructure and Training (KIT) fund allocates $600 million to upgrade school cooking facilities and train staff to expand on-site meal preparation. And a one-time $100 million fund helps districts implement these and other nutrition- and climate impact-minded measures.
The state support is invaluable to menu transition, Stewart says. While beans and legumes are cheap, procuring and transforming plant-based ingredients into appealing meals—ones that can compete with popular options—can be a challenge, she adds. And the USDA Foods program, which provides schools with subsidized meat, dairy, and other select commodities, covers a limited range of plant-based proteins such as beans and nut butters, “so the [state] funding helps to really offset some of those costs.”
Moises Plascencia, farm to school program coordinator in Santa Ana, says that the new programs help elevate plant-forward menus to a whole new level. The support for local sourcing allows procurement from farms within a 70-mile radius, giving the district access to a greater choice of fresh produce.
With a near-90 percent Latino population, ingredients such as tomatillos, Mexican squash, and herbs resonate with students, he notes, and lets kitchen staff “provide culturally relevant foods.” And that ups the appeal of any school lunch, he adds, “because then, you’re providing folks with things they want.”
“We’re increasingly drawing the connection between food as a driver of climate change … even just a small shift [towards a plant-based diet] could have a profound impact.”
Nevertheless, the tight $5 per-meal federal reimbursement rate often hamstrings budgets. “Nutrition service directors are hugely incentivized to use their pot of money on the USDA foods program,” says FOE’s Stewart, which ultimately skews the menu towards a heavy reliance on federally subsidized animal products.
Further south in Temecula Valley, limited budgets aren’t the only deterrent to embracing a full plant-based menu, says Amanda Shears, Temecula Valley Unified School District’s (TVUSD) assistant nutrition services director, in an email. Overall demand in the 27,000-student district—where nearly a quarter qualify for free and reduced lunches—is “minimal,” she adds, so “my goal is to design menus for everyone . . . using the resources and funds available.”
All district schools offer daily vegetarian options, but most contain cheese and dairy, says Ava Cuevas, a junior at TVUSD’s Chaparral High School. And the two vegan options—the bean burger and salad bar—are served in limited quantities, so they’re “sold out in minutes,” she adds.
As an animal welfare activist, Cuevas sees plant-based diets addressing a range of concerns, including climate impact and access to healthy food. She has also experienced food insecurity in the past, so the value of school lunches is not lost on her, she says. “Knowing that I can’t rely on [it] is definitely a distraction.” She’s stepping up her advocacy this fall—though until things change, she adds, “it’s [going to be] a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”
Meanwhile, Shears maintains that “making more plant-based meals available is important to me,” noting that the district is trying to ramp up scratch cooking and local sourcing of fruit and greens. Yet her department faces pressing priorities: Since the pandemic, school kitchens have been “severely understaffed,” she says, and equipment and facilities need an upgrade to better accommodate onsite food storage and preparation. The state funds, she adds, will be definitely helpful in the endeavor.
Statewide, the FOE report found that beef, cheese, and poultry together accounted for more than two-thirds of school purchases through the USDA program. Plant-based protein, on the other hand, made up just 2.5 percent of the pie, despite representing 8 percent of menu offerings. The USDA is currently considering a proposal for expanding credit options to include whole nuts, seeds, and legumes, according to an agency spokesperson contacted by Civil Eats.
Not surprisingly, cheeseburgers and ground beef entrees are among the most popular lunch selections in California schools. Yet, because of cattle’s large methane footprint, those choices result in 22 times more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than tofu noodle bowls or a plant-based wrap, Stewart notes, and account for nearly half the climate footprint of all protein served at lunch.
Powered by WPeMatico
Go to Source
Author: Naoki Nitta