From sloppy joes to salad bar

School lunches are a lot different than they used to be. A growing realization that healthier food facilitates better learning has sparked a national conversation about how we can improve school lunches.

California school districts have led the charge, thanks in large part to the Center for Ecoliteracy. Executive Director and co-founder Zenobia Barlow has been a pioneer in helping make school lunch programs in California more sustainable. “If you want kids to be able to learn, they need to eat as well as possible,” Barlow told the University of California Newsroom.

Schools across the state -- from Oakland to Monterey to the Central Valley -- are incorporating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains into their lunches. They’re using more local food as well.

One sustainable school lunch initiative that has brought more fruits and veggies to lunch trays is called California Thursdays. On at least one Thursday a month, a school’s lunch is sourced entirely within the state. The Center for Ecoliteracy launched the California Thursdays initiative in 2014 with Oakland Unified School District, and it has since grown to 71 school districts — serving about one-third of the state’s school meals.

Some schools are using fresh produce from their own school gardens, while others partner with local farms and fisheries. A program called Bay2Tray is not only offering healthy and tasty fish to school lunches, it’s boosting the economy by creating a new market for local fishermen. After piloting in Monterey Unified Schools, Bay2Tray has now expanded to several other districts and universities.

The big question is, of course, are kids enjoying the healthy food?

The answer lies in how new school lunch programs are implemented.

In addition to the health benefits of evolving school lunches, there’s an educational component, too. Several programs throughout California have integrated gardening and food preparation into the curriculum. Students gain insight into the whole process — including learning where food comes from, how it's prepared, and the food’s nutritional benefits. Barlow reports that this type of learning makes them more likely, even excited, to eat these healthier fruits and vegetables and even try new foods they’ve never tasted before. Parents have told her that when shopping with their kids, they request vegetables that they’ve never had at home, like beets.

While efforts to make school lunches healthier in California have been around for several years now, national laws have helped encourage such programs to start up in other parts of the country. In 2010, the Obama Administration enacted the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which created new standards for healthier school lunches. The law requires more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains in school meals, and less fat and sodium, among other improvements.

Such requirements are incredibly important because half of all students in the United States qualify for free or reduced lunch. The numbers are similar in California. For these students, school meals comprise 30-50% of their calories for the day, underlining the need for healthier school food.

Thanks to school lunch initiatives across California, students are eating more sustainable, nutritious meals and learning more at the same time.

Read more about these programs and other improvements to our state’s school lunches from the University of California Newsroom.

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