By Jaime Lockwood, Development Director

Photos courtesy of the Center for Ecoliterary

The premise of California Thursdays is simple: encourage school districts to serve one locally sourced and freshly prepared meal per week to benefit kids, local economies and the environment.  It’s a program the Center for Ecoliteracy and Oakland Unified School District piloted during the 2013-14 school year. By October 2014, when the California Thursdays program was rolled out statewide, 15 school districts were on board.

Despite its relative newness, California Thursdays is already demonstrating its impact. By last fall, four of the six largest school districts in California had signed up, including Los Angeles Unified with its 1,309 schools. Combined with the 14 school districts in the original cohort, these participating school districts serve 190 million meals annually – approximately 20% of school meals in California. Now with 42 school districts from across the state joining, California Thursdays is poised to make an unprecedented impact on local procurement in California.

In February, the Center for Ecoliteracy graciously invited me to a communications and media training for participating California Thursday school districts to learn more about the program. The program is designed to take much of the guesswork and behind-the-scenes research of sourcing local food out of the equation for school food programs.  It also trains school districts in communicating the value of California Thursdays across their community to garner support.

As I sat through this California Thursdays training (one of several that the districts participate in throughout the school year), it was clear that the initiative is the result of careful listening, planning and thought partnering on behalf of the Center for Ecoliteracy and school food staff from across the state. Their hard work has resulted in a comprehensive set of supports designed to address the most common challenges schools face in sourcing and preparing fresh, local food in school kitchens, including:

  • A list of California-grown/produced foods that meet the federal reimbursable guidelines – and the vendors who sell them
  • 21 recipes featuring California-grown fruits and vegetables, including nutritional information
  • Trainings to help school districts broadly communicate the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of California Thursdays to various members of their community
  • Resources in both English and Spanish to help engage parents in the discussions about school food
  • A network of school food service/nutrition directors who can reach out to each other for continuing support and ideas

California Thursdays stands out as a state-level innovation that is ripe for replication across the country. A similar program, Minnesota Thursdays, has already followed California's lead. To riff on their tag lines, what if all Thursdays were Arkansas Thursdays, West Virginia Thursdays, Rhode Island Thursdays, and Wyoming Thursdays? What if all states had initiatives that supported their schools in improving the quality of food served, building relationships with local farmers, and helping students and their communities reclaim their food heritage?

Then perhaps, one day, every day will be Local Food Day in schools.