California Thursdays

Starting March 17, 2016, over 10,000 students across Western Nevada County will have a tasty surprise: a meal made from foods grown locally in California and prepared fresh just for them. And, as California Thursdays continues to grow, these delicious meals will become a regular part of menus for many Western Nevada County students as well as students across the state.

Several schools are joining an ever-growing network of innovative school systems that includes 58 school districts – large, small, urban, suburban and rural, representing 2,878 schools – all of which will be participating in statewide California Thursdays.  Collectively, the 58 districts serve over 283 million school meals a year. Western Nevada County’s participating schools alone serve approximately 730,000 meals annually.

The program is rooted in the simple logic that California children will benefit from having more fresh California-grown food. In addition to improving student health and academic achievement, this seemingly small change provides major benefits for farmers, local economies and the environment as a whole.

Theresa Ruiz, NJUHSD Food Service Director, at California Thursday training
Theresa Ruiz, NJUHSD Food Service Director, at California Thursday training

But implementation of California Thursdays is far from simple. The district’s nutrition service directors, Suzanne Grass, Theresa Ruiz and Debbie Gomez, have worked countless hours alongside their counterparts statewide to reform an entrenched centralized food system that ships produce around the nation, sometimes moving California food to Chicago or other distant locations before returning it, highly processed, to the district.  Added to that are the challenges of creating recipes that 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.

Why put in the effort? The district, in collaboration with Sierra Harvest and the nonprofit Center for Ecoliteracy, knows that buying, preparing and serving local California food has multiple wins.

“Whenever we serve fresh, locally grown food to children with these recipes, they devour it,” says Zenobia Barlow, executive director of the Center for Ecoliteracy. “That alone is a victory. Properly nourished children are healthy and ready to learn.”

Less than one in ten children consumes enough fruits and vegetables a day, yet studies show that kids are more likely to eat nutritious school meals if the food is fresh and attractive. This provides an ideal opportunity for the food service staff to have a major impact on the community and students’ lives.

“California Thursdays is a great first step in celebrating all that California agriculture has to offer,” says California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross. “It brings awareness to the fresh, wholesome and seasonally appropriate bounty of our great state. If we feed our children good, healthy food, and if we connect them back to the place and the people and the practices that it came from, I think we’re going to have great decision makers in our future.”

The majority of Western Nevada County students will now enjoy menus featuring healthy, student-tested recipes prepared onsite from scratch with local and regional ingredients. Options range from Asian Noodles with Lime Chili Sauce and Spring Vegetables to a Yucatan Chicken Wrap to a CA Thursday special pizza for students in the Nevada Joint Union High School District.  The K-8 student population will enjoy a Spinach Walnut Strawberry Salad created by Food Service Lead Melissa Bentley and her team at Grass Valley School District Child Nutrition Services.  Taste testings of these California Thursday items will be served by Sierra Harvest’s farm to school liaisons.

Good for Students, Good for Finances, Good for Planet

“Nutritious school meals also make perfect financial sense”, says Nevada County Schools Superintendent, Holly Hermansen, who supports the local California Thursdays Program.  “Healthy kids put less strain on our school districts’ health, counseling and special education services, while lowering absentee rates and improving school finances. We are funded based on how many kids show up to class, so it’s worth investing in quality meals that children are excited to eat.”

In addition, California Thursdays will take taxpayer funds that might otherwise go out of state and redirect them back into Nevada County’s economy. Economists estimate that every $1 spent on local food fosters $2.56 in local economic activity. Every job created in the production of local food also leads to an addition of more than two new jobs within the community.

Freshly prepared meals made with locally and regionally sourced ingredients require less packaging and transportation, which helps the environment and reduces waste. California Thursdays benefits students, communities, economies and the environment. On this St. Patrick’s Day, it gives new meaning to “going green.”

Below is a list of participating schools in Nevada County.  For more information about the California Thursdays program, visit  To download delicious meals to cook with your children created by the Center for Ecoliteracy, click here.

Alta Sierra ElementaryCEL_CAThurs_Orange_lo res
Bear River High School
Bell Hill Magnet School
Chicago Park
Clear Creek
Cottage Hill
Deer Creek School
Grass Valley Charter
Grizzly Hill
Lyman Gilmore
Magnolia Intermediate
Mount Saint Mary’s
Nevada Union High School
Pleasant Valley
Ready Springs Elementary
Scotten School
Seven Hills School
Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning
Sierra Montessori Academy
Silver Springs High School
Union Hill
Williams Ranch