New Report Finds 100 Percent Organic, Plant-Forward School Meals Produce More Than Just Health Benefits

Conscious Kitchen, in collaboration with Friends of the Earth, recently released a report about the benefits of an alternative, values-based, climate-friendly school foodservice model.

Conscious Kitchen is a California-based organization that has been working for almost a decade to improve food equity, education, and access. Their report, Organic, Plant-Forward Scratch Cooked School Meals: A California Case Study looks at three schools currently implementing the feeding model, which is rooted in providing 100 percent organic, scratch-cooked meals from low-waste kitchens.

With federal funding, the Sausalito Marin City School District has operated meal programs based on the Conscious Kitchen model for seven years at its two elementary schools, Willow Creek Academy and Bayside MLK Academy. Peres Elementary School in West Contra Costa Unified School District recently completed a pilot program during the 2018-19 school year.

All three schools report that they have racially diverse student bodies. Additionally, 100 percent of students at Bayside MLK and Peres and just under half of the students at Willow Creek Academy qualify for free and reduced meals.

“Lack of access to healthy nutritious food for all children is one of American’s most pressing challenges,” Judi Shils, founder of Conscious Kitchen tells Food Tank. “Poor nutrition and diet-related chronic illness in children are on the rise, and rates are much higher among children of color, leading to long-term health and educational disparities.”

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), people of color in the United States face higher rates of chronic diseases including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and stroke. For example, Black and Latinx individuals are 77 and 66 percent more likely to develop diabetes compared to white individuals, respectively.

Conscious Kitchen’s food model prioritizes students’ health and focuses on reducing preventable disease by providing 100 percent organic, plant-forward, scratch cooked meals.

Another element of the Conscious Kitchen’s model is student engagement and education through a Student Ambassador Program. Through this program, the organization provides funding for a nutrition educator and a school garden. They hope that this will not only help students think more critically about healthy food options, but also participate in the school lunch program.

“When students participate, school food is more likely to represent the diverse cultures and values of the community that it serves, they are more likely to participate in school lunch and become future advocates for a healthy sustainable food system,” Shils tells Food Tank.

Conscious Kitchen’s scratch-cooking model also strives to benefit the broader community. The report explains that the programs require investment in kitchen infrastructure and larger kitchen staffs, which can support job creation and local economic development. These full-time school food jobs also come with health care and benefits, adding another layer of stability.

Conscious Kitchen also focuses on supporting local organic agriculture particularly small, family-owned farms.

Shils acknowledges that Conscious Kitchen’s programs cost more than traditional school feeding models. Additional costs are covered by a combination of local district General and discretionary funds funds, grants, and both monetary and in-kind donations.

But the report finds that there are opportunities to save money down the line. For example, Willow Creek discovered it could save US$9,450 per year by replacing beef-based meals with plant-based alternatives.

By sourcing plant-forward meals from local farms, the program also prevents food waste, saves water and energy sources required to produce, process, and transport food and packaging. In addition, the program works with foodservice teams to employ recycling and composting strategies.

“Conscious Kitchen has found that by working creatively with the school food service directors and the community, fundraising, and helping set up pilot efforts the community can come together to see the change that they ended to convince themselves of the holistic benefits of a more long-term sustainable focus on feeding students,” Shils tells Food Tank.

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