California Could Be the First Organic-to-School State

It’s time to put organic food on more kids’ plates, and the California legislature may be willing to help. California Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry’s new bill, AB 958, will create the first-ever Organic-to-School pilot program. The pilot program will help qualifying school districts purchase organic food, offering up to 15 cents per meal. If successful, the bill will bring more organic food to California’s schools, which is great for the health of our children, a win for climate, and a boost for innovative farming communities growing food without toxic pesticides.
 
California is the nation’s leading producer of organic food, yet too many California organic farmers lack stable markets for the healthy, sustainable food they grow. This pilot program will create new and welcome market expansion opportunities for California’s organic farmers and help advance the state’s climate mitigation goals by investing in organic agriculture practices that prioritize soil health. Under the program, organic farmers will have opportunities to sell directly to schools or fill increased demand for organic from school food vendors. 
 
Public schools are an ideal partner to grow California’s organic industry, as there is already significant demand in the school sector for organic and sustainably grown foods. Conscious Kitchen’s pilot program at Peres Elementary in Richmond brings hundreds of all-organic meals to a diverse student body every day, with district-wide expansion plans in the works. Winters has a robust farm to school program that sources from CCOF-certified Full Belly Farm. Encinitas Union School District even managed to create its own CCOF-certified organic farm to supply produce for school meals!
 
Bringing more organic food to schools is particularly important for kids, whose small bodies can be disproportionately impacted by pesticide residue on food. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that residues from the brain-toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos are present on many of kids’ favorite foods—at levels up to 14,000 percent higher than “safe” limits. NRDC and our allies are working to keep these chemicals out of our food system (including with two proposed bans on chlorpyrifos: California SB 458 and federal HR 230)–and organic farmers show us it can be done. 
 
Since organic food is produced without most synthetic pesticides, switching to an organic diet has been shown in several studies to decrease pesticide levels in people’s bodies in a short amount of time. In fact, a recent peer-reviewed study showed that on average, detected pesticide levels dropped by 60.5 percent after study participants ate an all-organic diet for just six days. 
 
AB 958 recognizes that school food is an especially important source of nourishment for low-income students, who often live in communities burdened disproportionately by toxic pesticide use. Accordingly, schools serving a high percentage of low-income children, situated near agricultural fields, and/or serving universally free school meals will get top priority for Organic-to-School grant funding. 
 
This pilot program also dovetails with Assemblymember Aguiar-Curry’s Farmer Equity Act of 2017. That legislation directed California’s Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to ensure that the state’s work to promote agriculture includes socially disadvantaged farmers who have faced systemic discrimination based on their racial, ethnic, or gender identities. The pilot program will facilitate expansion of organic markets for these farmers by encouraging participating school districts to source from socially disadvantaged farmers.
 
Healthy, organic, culturally appropriate food should be available to everyone, and especially California’s public school students. With the state’s help, California’s schools can lead the way toward a better food system for all, from farm to fork. 
 
Sign your name by March 15 to show your support for AB 958, the Organic-to-School Pilot Program. 
 
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Allison (Clark) Johnson (aljohnson@nrdc.org) is a Sustainable Food Policy Advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Her work focuses on sustainable food systems with a broad lens, recognizing that harmful pesticides, soil degradation, and antibiotic use associated with intensive livestock operations hurt our health, communities, and resources. Prior to joining NRDC, Johnson practiced environmental and land use law as an attorney at Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP and worked as a handler certification and policy specialist at CCOF.
 

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