Students at Idyllwild School were introduced to special meals from California grown foods last week. Hemet Unified School District, in cooperation with the nonprofit Center for Ecoliteracy, is serving fresh lunches to district students.

HUSD has plans to operate the California Thursdays through the remainder of the 2014-15 school year.

“We are actually offering California Thursdays at all of the schools in Hemet Unified,” said Harold Sullins, HUSD’s director of Nutrition Services. “There are different California Thursday entrees at our elementary school, but every school does participate.”

The program is predicated on the simple logic that California children will benefit from more fresh food prepared with California products. But implementing California Thursdays is far from simple. The HUSD Nutrition Services team has worked countless hours alongside their counterparts statewide to reform an entrenched, centralized food system that ships produce around the nation.

Added to that are the challenges of creating recipes kids enjoy and that meet federal standards, finding local farmers who can supply local schools, training staff to cook and serve fresh meals, and encouraging students to try them.

Student menus feature healthful, student-tested recipes cooked from scratch with local ingredients. Options range from Autumn Pasta to Sausage & Peppers Hoagie and Caprese Salad. These items are made with locally sourced ingredients such as Italian sausage, California olive oil, Temecula Valley honey, Kabocha squash and California heirloom tomatoes.

“Each new menu and ingredient will vary with the season,” Sullins said.

Funded with grants from the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, The California Endowment, TomKat Charitable Trust, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Center for Ecoliteracy donors, California Thursdays was originally developed and successfully piloted with Oakland Unified School District last year.

“Nutritious school meals also make perfect financial sense,” Sullins added in a press release about the program. “Healthy kids put less strain on our district’s health, counseling and special education services, while lowering absentee rates and improving school finances. We’re funded based on how many kids show up to class, so it’s worth investing in quality meals that children are more likely to eat.”