In Santa Cruz, veganism is far from a fringey lifestyle choice. Local restaurant menus and grocery stores abound with options that make plant-based lifestyles simple. Shortly before speaking with Beth Love, Executive Director of the nonprofit Eat for the Earth, I’d been at the Boardwalk with my family, and I gushed to her about the vegan option I found: a Korean-inspired rice bowl with sweet and spicy tofu, edamame and kimchi. Delicious—and indicative of the direction our dietary choices can take.
When my seven-year-old started at Westlake last year, I perused the “vegetarian” menu for school lunch: cheese pizza, grilled cheese. A tofu stir fry on Friday. We would have wanted to take advantage of the school lunch program, but given our opt-out of consuming dairy, I packed lunch instead.
Eat for the Earth engages in community outreach projects surrounding plant-based nutrition, for health benefits and to address the global climate emergency. Selected for Santa Cruz Gives last year, it has raised over $12,000 to help fund programs such as Community Rx, a diet, health and education program in partnership with local healthcare providers at Salud Para La Gente in Watsonville. Love wants to reach those who are “most marginalized when it comes to healthy nutrition information,” she says. The pathway to healthful nutrition beginning in childhood makes the school meals issue high-stakes.
This month, California became the first state to support plant-based meals in schools with a $700 million investment toward expanding options. In the bill approved by Gov. Newsom, $100 million will go to plant-based foods for schools, and $600 million to upgrade the infrastructure of school kitchens, and train and pay food service workers in preparing these meals.
It’s not just about veganism.
“The emphasis is on plant-based,” says Love, “but also sustainably produced foods, food from California and for students with religious and other restrictive diets. For so many families in our community who are packing lunches, it might be more economical to take advantage of the school lunch program, but they can’t. I don’t want to imply there aren’t plant-based options, but it should be a right for any student who wants to eat plant-based to be able to have comprehensive choices to meet their needs.”
My daughter is one of them. When I interviewed her briefly as she sat in the bathtub post-Junior Guards, she told me she didn’t take school lunches because “there was stuff in them made from animals and I didn’t like that.” She’d prefer her school to offer “salad and vegan cheeseburgers.” (Hey, we love a good Beyond Burger with a cashew-based cheddar slice!)
Love, who is on the forefront of ensuring my daughter’s lunch dreams become reality, has seen support: “[Second District Supervisor] Zach Friend introduced a motion to endorse AB 558,” she says. AB 558 provides state grants to school districts to increase plant-based offerings. “The board of supervisors endorsed the bill,” Love says. “When Friend made his comments at the board meeting where the measure was on the consent agenda, he specifically talked about Santa Cruz County having a history of wanting schools to have healthier food.”
What local school districts need to do is apply for funds, but in order to do so they need to know about the initiative in the first place. Love and Eat for the Earth advocate for Santa Cruz County’s children to reap the benefits of this funding. The organization seeks volunteers interested in working with local schools and “building relationships with the school districts,” she says. “Finding out who decision makers are and talking with them, supporting them to apply for some of this funding.”
Love hopes to see results in a similar vein as what a report by climate justice organization Friends of the Earth found in an analysis of a shift in the Oakland Unified School District. In “Shrinking the Carbon and Water Footprint of School Food: A Recipe for Combating Climate Change,” Friends of the Earth found that OUSD’s food carbon footprint declined 14% over two years after reducing purchases of animal products by 30%, resulting in $42,000 saved and a reduction in water use equivalent to filling 840,000 bathtubs.
“Part of our vision is that Santa Cruz County is a model of sustainable eating,” Love says. “Having sustainable plant-based foods in our schools fits that vision. Santa Cruz County is progressive, a wonderful place to live, with lots of access to natural beauty and good will. There’s no reason we can’t be a model of eating sustainably. We will take advantage of it locally.”
Love also emphasizes that nothing is being taken away, only more options given. “I have never heard any policy suggestion to legislate that people can’t have what they want,” she says.
The new legislation is about incentivizing choices that are healthier for human beings and more environmentally sustainable.
“I want to see policy makers and corporate leaders really see and acknowledge the dire need for human diets to change so we can continue to have a habitable world,” she says. “When measures like this are passed it gives me hope we are moving in that direction. What we need is for all leaders to make these policy changes to support this dietary shift.”