Big things are happening in California, as the state continues to offer universal free meals to all students regardless of income status and invests millions of dollars into farm-to-school programs. While some are hailing these efforts as a pathway for more plant-based meals, opportunity exists for farmers and ranchers of all types, including dairy farmers and others in animal agriculture.

California’s $60 million Farm to School Incubator Grant Program, its $600 million Kitchen Infrastructure and Training fund, and one-time funding of $100 million as part of the School Food Best Practices initiative are among the ways in which the state is prioritizing school meals with locally sourced ingredients. The end result can be improved access to nutritious plant and animal-derived farm products, better nutrition education and agricultural literacy, and elevated health for children and communities.

While school meals are at the center of efforts to adopt plant-based eating patterns, plant-based does not need to be plant-exclusive. A plant-exclusive diet could limit intake of nutritious foods from animal sources, which provide important ways to nourish children and communities. Plant and animal foods should not be thought of as competing entities but rather as synergistic food sources that provide different though complementary nutritional, social, economic, cultural and environmental benefits.

Children’s Health Is at Risk

School meals are critical, as they provide a safety net for many young people, especially ones in underserved and marginalized communities who rely on school meals for access to nutrient-dense foods. Nutrition and consumption of high-quality foods during childhood positively impact academic success and lifelong health. In addition, research shows that eating patterns established at an early age influence food and beverage choices made throughout life.

At the same time, many children are overweight and undernourished, especially within communities that have been marginalized. In the United States, childhood obesity rates remain historically high, putting millions of young people at greater risk for serious health conditions, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and asthma. Access to nutritious and wholesome foods such as milk and dairy foods, vegetables, fruits, whole grains and high-quality plant and animal protein is essential to help children grow healthfully and reach their full potential.

Broadening the Lens of ‘Sustainability’ 

Plant-based advocates are often driven by environmental sustainability. Unfortunately, this focus can ignore the significant advances made by animal agriculture in improving climate-smart practices that reduce environmental footprint. In addition, important contributions of animal agriculture to people and communities are often overlooked.

In California, the dairy industry’s efforts to adopt climate-smart farming practices are stronger than ever. A report from the University of California, Davis shows the dairy industry is on target to achieve its commitment to a 40% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and predicts California dairy farms will reach climate neutrality by then. These successes are not by accident. The California dairy community is using energy-efficient lighting, cooling and pumping methods and solar energy, as well as investing in anaerobic digesters to capture and convert methane in manure to biogas for clean energy. Additionally, dairy farms have decreased water usage by 88% during the last 50 years by repurposing agricultural byproducts such as almond hulls into cow feed rations and recycling water on the farm. These are just a few of the advances that often go unrecognized.

Efforts are underway by the dairy community and others to broaden the definition of sustainability. For some people, the word sustainability refers solely to environmental concerns, but that narrow definition does not acknowledge the interconnection between the health of people and planet. Sustainable nutrition is a more holistic approach that ensures wholesome, nutrient-dense foods are accessible, affordable and culturally relevant, while also preserving environmental resources and supporting local communities. This approach is used by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

Nutrition Education and Agricultural Literacy Are Critically Important

Along with ensuring that affordable and accessible nutrient-rich plant and animal-derived foods and beverages are available via farm-to-school programs, nutrition education is also important.

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Nutrition education equips and empowers children and families to make informed eating decisions and establishes lifelong healthy eating patterns, while increasing agricultural literacy and knowledge of how food gets from the farm to the plate. By advocating for science-based nutrition education that meets people where they are, food and agriculture communities can enhance knowledge, understanding and value for wholesome, nutritious foods from all food groups.

In urban areas like Los Angeles, it’s not unusual to meet a child who has never seen a cow, much less a dairy farm, making programs like Dairy Council of California’s Mobile Dairy Classroom more important than ever. In conjunction with National Farm to School Month in October, Dairy Council of California is also introducing the Let’s Eat Healthy Together: Explore Dairy curriculum. Designed in partnership with Lodi Unified School District, California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom and San Joaquin County Office of Education, this new no-cost resource brings food education to life and adds to Dairy Council of California’s school resources made available by the dairy community.

Farm-to-school programs offer opportunities for all types of farmers. For the California dairy industry, farm-to-school provides a way to advocate for milk and dairy foods’ unique and essential contributions to daily healthy, sustainable eating patterns. Similar opportunities exist for others in agriculture. To learn more about how to get involved in elevating the health of schoolchildren, visit

Amy DeLisio is the CEO of the Dairy Council of California, a position she has held since January 2023.

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