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Lessons From A Marin School District's Organic School Lunch Program

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One school is challenging the current model of school lunch. Watch the five-minute California Matters episode about it here.

When I read the news back in 2013 that a school district in Marin County became the first in the nation to provide their students with all-organic, non-GMO meals, my reaction was "Oh, that's nice." When the people behind the project said this could be achieved anywhere, well, that's when my skepticism started to set in.

Sure. Any district can achieve something like this. All they need for this to happen is to reside in posh Marin County, which consistently breaks their own property value records.

But maybe something like this could work in districts that don't have that kind of bankroll.

A few years ago, Judy Shils -- head of the Sausalito-based non-profit Turning Green -- asked districts in her area if any schools were interested in bringing organic, non-GMO foods into the lunchrooms.

"I wanted to do a pilot of this process for a week to see if we can source the food we want on the scale we need it, to have it be beautiful, and to have kids eat it," Shils said.

Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy, a K-8 school, was one school in Sausalito Marin City School District that took her up on her offer. It's the most under-served population in the county, with 95% of the students qualifying for the USDA's "free and reduced price school meal" program.

"Most of the students are non-white," said Steve Van Zandt, the district's superintendent. "African American, Latino, Middle Eastern. It's not what you'd think of as Sausalito."

And, like most other communities lacking funds, the school's children were fed processed and packaged foods. But Shils wanted to change that.

She began her program in 2013, dubbing it The Conscious Kitchen. With the assistance of Justin Everett, the Executive Chef of Cavallo Point Lodge and Good Earth Natural Foods, and support from neighboring farms and community members, the launch was a huge success.

"The whole dynamic of the school changed," Shils said. "It built camaraderie and community that had never existed before."

It went so well, in fact, that Shils tried to extend the program for a longer period, but the idea was met with some skepticism.

"I said it all sounds great, but it can't cost us any more money than it already does," Van Zandt said. There were certain costs associated with the initial outlay of the project, like fixing up the kitchen, and buying new cups and plates. "All of a sudden you have to wash dishes again," Van Zandt said. But those were bought with long-term savings in mind.

"We don't use any styrofoam or anything, so our trash bill goes down." After a year, Shils not only kept costs steady, but actually saved money. "Ever since that happened, anything Judy wants, Judy gets," Van Zandt said.

This school year, the program has expanded to include Willow Creek Academy, a charter school in the same district, bringing the total number of students consuming non-GMO lunches to over 500 a day. And this, if Shils has her way, is only the beginning.

"My goal is to prove we could do it for any number of students," Shils said. "I wanted to put it out there to see if other people would care, and if other schools or parents would have an interest in us. We were absolutely deluged with responses."

To Shils, it's as simple as changing how we think about buying food. She tells me the story of inspecting a school kitchen a few years ago. "I looked up at the top shelf and saw a box of bananas that were conventional, and I was like, 'What are you doing with conventional bananas?'" Shils said. "He said it was because he couldn't afford organic." Once they traded numbers, he realized he was paying more for conventional bananas than for organic. This stasis is what Shils is waging war against.

"Once you get your prices set, you don't ask again because it's way easier to keep your supply chain intact," Shils said. "You don't have to worry about changing your orders, you know what you're getting, you know how much it costs, and you build your budget off that. To implement change, it's hard and scary. There's a lot of legwork to be done, but it's stuff we know. All the questions that a kitchen team is going to have, we already know the answers to."

To help get that information out there, Shils and her team are holding an instructional webinar on Thursday, September 10th at 10 a.m. PST. Presenters will include Shils, chefs Justin Everett and Shaun Dayton, and Van Zandt. For more information -- including instructions how to download the program prior to the webinar -- head over to the flyer for the event.

Throughout the webinar, and in the ensuing months and years as the program continues to expand, Shils hopes to bring about change by simply getting people to realize that this could actually work. "This is supposed to be a bureaucratic process, it's not supposed to look this easy," Shils said. "But there were no challenges at all. It was probably one of the easiest things I've ever done."

Read more on school nutrition here.

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