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Students at Yorkshire Elementary School in Manassas, Virginia, sample new school dishes on a menu created to meet new standards.   - 

This story is part of Marketplace's partnership with Youth Radio

School lunchrooms are sometimes referred to as "the biggest restaurant chain in America," and in districts across California a new program is trying to get local ingredients on the menu. It's part of a big push in the state to promote healthy eating and local agriculture – and to bring the fresh high-end cuisine that California is known for into the cafeteria.

Two questions: How will districts pay for it? And will California kids eat it?

California public schools serve 560 million lunches a year. In a state that also grows a lot of this country’s food, it makes sense that young Californians would eat California-grown meals.

That’s the idea behind a new school lunch plan called California Thursdays that debuted last week. Fifteen districts across the state have partnered with the program, including such big ones as Los Angeles and San Diego. Yet the large-scale change is starting small.

“What we like to call a bite-sized implementation strategy,” says Zenobia Barlow, co-founder of the Center for Ecoliteracy. For the past 20 years, her organization has been promoting sustainable living through schools. Because school lunch is such a big enterprise, Barlow says it could change the way we eat outside the cafeteria, too.

“By institutional purchasing, we’re going to trigger demand that will result in greater production of sustainably grown and sustainably produced food,” Barlow says. “Just from a business perspective, when kids start eating fresh and freshly prepared delicious meals, there are economies of scale that make it possible.”

But school lunch is bound by federal requirements and a strict budget.

Alexandra Emmott, Oakland Unified School District's “farm-to-school supervisor," figures that “for an entree, which needs to be a serving of protein and a serving of grain, we have a budget of 60 cents per entree.”

For the fruit or vegetable, its 20 cents, she says, and 25 cents for the milk.

A California Thursdays dish can cost more. The district pays 40 cents for a locally sourced and antibiotic-free chicken leg, Emmott says. High-schoolers need two drumsticks to meet USDA protein requirements, which puts the entree over budget.

Sometimes the district balances the extra cost over the course of the lunch calendar, or hits the price point by replacing a second piece of chicken with, say, red beans and rice. It involves some creativity, but Emmott says this type of thinking is starting to catch on.

“I talked to folks in Maine who were sourcing local proteins up there, even fish. So there are districts all across the country who are starting to do this," she says.

Just last month, Minnesota Thursdays launched its own local lunch program for students in the Twin Cities. Back in Oakland, 17-year-old Ayana Edgerly says “the food is way better in the cafeteria on Thursdays.”

Over the summer, she worked with the Center for Ecoliteracy to conduct peer taste-tests on California Thursdays recipes. Students were given a dish, then asked to rate it from one to five in terms of taste and appearance, Edgerly says. They also were asked: "Would you get in a lunch line for it?" 

Me personally? I haven’t eaten a school lunch since fourth grade, but my colleagues at Youth Radio offered to prepare one of the new dishes.

 They whipped up a bowl of shredded chicken and broccoli over brown rice. It looked kind of cute and even tasted pretty good, like a home-cooked meal but served at school.

Soon we’ll see if more kids feel the same.