California’s kids deserve healthy lunches. Here’s how better food can save the planet

‘I just wouldn’t eat until I got home.’ The difference summer meal program makes for kids

Kids get a free lunch at Rosemont High School thanks to Sacramento City Unified's summer food service program on Monday, June 17, 2019. The district offers free breakfast and lunch to students age 18 or younger with no paperwork or need to sign up.
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Kids get a free lunch at Rosemont High School thanks to Sacramento City Unified's summer food service program on Monday, June 17, 2019. The district offers free breakfast and lunch to students age 18 or younger with no paperwork or need to sign up.

Remember that moment as a kid in the school cafeteria eating delicious food? Yeah, we don’t either. Not to pick on tater tots and hockey puck-like burgers, but for far too long we’ve been feeding our kids food that is harmful to their health and our planet.

Yet here’s a candle in the dark: California has the opportunity to provide healthier and climate-friendly alternatives with Assembly Bill 479, groundbreaking legislation that proposes to expand access to plant-based food in the state’s public schools. The state Assembly voted 63-12 in support of the bill, championed by Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian (D-Van Nuys)­­. It is now under consideration in the state Senate, where it deserves swift approval.

Here’s why this is a no-brainer: We have about 11 years to rein in global warming according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, or face “potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet.” That assessment is precise and sobering.

Food has a huge impact on our planet, sucking up natural resources and spewing out pollution. But not all food is created equal. Industrially-produced meat and dairy products are the worst offenders, as one of the leading causes of human-made greenhouse gases and the leading driver of deforestation, extinction and dead zones in the ocean.

And yet food is left out of the climate policy conversation, while our schools are actually subsidizing and serving the most climate polluting foods in almost all of the 540 million school lunches served in our state every year. In fact, the vast majority of meals served in California schools might as well have tailpipes on them.


If we want to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, a significant reduction in meat and dairy consumption is essential, according to one of the most comprehensive studies of our food system’s impact on the environment published in the journal Nature. It also recommends we substitute meat and dairy with four to six times times more beans and pulses, such as lentils and peas.

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Serving more of these healthful foods in schools will also help address our public heath crisis.

Chronic diet and lifestyle related diseases now account for 7 in 10 U.S. deaths

. In California, almost


of our kids are obese. High meat consumption, especially red and processed meat – staples of most school cafeterias – has been


to many of these diseases. Lay this along side the fact that only

1 out of 10 kids are getting enough vegetables

and that many kids nourishment comes from their school lunch program.

Additionally, California’s public schools serve diverse populations. The National Institute of Health estimates that 60-80 percent of African Americans and 50-80 percent of Latinos are lactose intolerant. It is critical that schools offer plant-based entrees and milk options for students with lactose intolerance, taking a small step in righting racial health disparities.

By establishing the School Plant-Based Lunch and Beverage Program, AB 479 will make sure all children have access to healthier, plant-based food options. This bill helps kids now and sets them up for a lifetime of better choices. It’s also what more kids are asking for as they learn about the huge impact meat has on our climate.

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Just as the state incentivizes electric cars and low carbon fuels, it should incentivize large institutional food purchasers to serve lower carbon foods – starting with public schools across the state. Friends of the Earth has calculated that if every public school in California swapped a veggie burger for a beef burger just once a month

it would save 300 million pounds of CO2 a year

. That is equivalent to driving 300 million fewer miles or planting 2 million trees. And that is just one recipe shift.

By subsidizing dozens of recipe shifts across California schools with a small additional reimbursement, AB 479 will measurably reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with the 540 million school lunches served each year.

A number of school districts in the state already serve plant-based options. However, they often face budget challenges since meat and cow’s milk are heavily subsidized by the federal government relative to plant-based foods and milk options.

At a time when things seem more complicated every day, it’s actually pretty convenient that’s what’s most nourishing for our kids is also what’s best for the environment. We must face climate disruption head on, and California has another opportunity to model national and global leadership by making school food part of the climate solution.

James Cameron is a filmmaker and explorer. Suzy Amis Cameron is the author of “OMD: The Simple, Plant-Based Program to Save Your Health and Save the Planet.”

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