Los Angeles Unified and 14 other school districts across California launched a pilot program Thursday that aims to bring the farm-to-table movement to school campuses.
Known as "California Thursdays," the new initiative seeks to increase healthy, homegrown food in school meals and reduce schools' dependence on processed foods that have become a staple of student lunches in recent decades.
"We want to serve more local, fresh food to kids," said Adam Kesselman, a program manager for California Thursdays, an effort backed by the Center for Ecoliteracy, a nonprofit that encourages education in sustainable living for grades K-12.
"Healthy kids perform better in schools. They show up to school, and food is an opportunity for teaching and learning that kids can take with them," Kesselman said.
L.A. Unified, which currently gets 70 percent of its food from California, launched the program at Gratts Learning Academy for Young Scholars, an elementary school near downtown Los Angeles.
Third-grader Nayseht Benitez bought a Nutella sandwich from home for lunch, but gave the "California Thursdays" meal a try.
"I kind of like the burgers,” she said. "I think it’s good."
The meals are very similar to what is served the rest of the week. Many of the students threw away bananas and packets of carrots they didn't eat.
David Binkle, the district's director of food services, says the new emphasis on California foods is part of a wider effort, underway for the past five years, to move away from processed foods.
Binkle said buying local ingredients isn't necessarily more expensive.
"Actually, the cost is less when we buy the food closer to the children," he said. "Our beef, our cattle, are in the Central Valley. Our dairy are in the Inland Empire in Chino."
The district will roll out the program in about 20 schools over coming weeks, with plans to expand to the entire district every Thursday beginning in February.
During the 2013-2014 school year, L.A. Unified served a record 128.7 million meals. About 80 percent of the district's students receive free or reduced-price lunches.
Other districts participating in the pilot include Coachella Valley Unified School District, Riverside Unified School District and Alvord Unified School District. A full list of participating districts is available online.
Kesselman explains the business of school lunches can be challenging, with masses of students to feed, layers of regulations and tight budgets.
"School lunch is complicated, and we're trying to simplify how we look at change," Kesselman said.