As partners, West Contra Costa schools and Conscious Kitchen make organic foods affordable
By Rachel Trachten
In October of 2020, Judi Shils called Earl Herrick with a unique customer request: she needed an astonishing 130,000 pounds of organic produce for weekly delivery. Equally surprising was the single delivery location.
Shils, founder of the nonprofit Conscious Kitchen, was procuring food for the West Contra Costa Unified School District. She had reached out to several farmers in addition to Earl’s Organic, the largest organic food distributor in the Bay Area.
Herrick’s surprise was a wake-up call for Shils: “I realized,” she says, “that even somebody who was running the largest organic operation had never seen numbers like that.”
How had Shils ended up with this formidable task, and how could a school district afford organic food?
The district’s food service director, Barbara Jellison, was already a champion of organic foods when the pandemic forced schools to close in March 2020. Jellison scrambled to feed families in her district, which includes 53 schools and about 30,000 students. Two-thirds of district students are eligible for free or reduced-cost school meals. Jellison shifted from an in-school model to food boxes for families to bring home, initially filling them with a combination of items already in the district’s central kitchen plus premade frozen meals.
But Jellison wasn’t satisfied. In 2018–19, she’d partnered with Shils to create a 100% scratch-cooked, organic lunch program at Peres Elementary in Richmond. She knew that Conscious Kitchen was also working with two schools in the Sausalito Marin City School District to operate similar programs and that Shils had contacts in the organic supply chain. “We have a great partner in Conscious Kitchen,” says Jellison. Although it’s commonly assumed that organics are far too expensive for large food operations like school meals, here was an opportunity to challenge that belief. In October of 2020, Jellison texted Shils and told her she wanted to put ten pounds of organic produce into each of the 13,000 food boxes she was distributing to district families each week. Could Shils source the produce for her?
Building an Organic Supply Chain
Shils succeeded in getting the produce, starting with 10 pounds of organic apples and cauliflower for each box. Although she’d been staying home due to the pandemic, Shils felt compelled to go over to the district’s central kitchen to watch all that produce being delivered. Then, with Halloween coming up, Jellison set her sights on an organic pumpkin for each box. As news about the fresh produce spread, however, more families wanted to take part, and the number of boxes rose from 13,000 in October 2020 to 23,000 by April. The logistics are daunting, with food coming in from nearly 40 sources and distribution happening outdoors at 16 schools and 11 nonprofit sites that operate afterschool programs.
Once Shils and Jellison were on a roll with organic produce, they considered next steps. Why couldn’t the entire box be filled with organic items? In December 2020, Shils reached out to Mindful Meats, an organic, non-GMO Bay Area business that Conscious Kitchen has partnered with in the Marin schools. When she asked co-founder Claire Herminjard if she could provide 13,000 pounds of organic beef, Herminjard was so stunned by the number that she misunderstood and asked if Shils meant 1,300 pounds. In the end, Shils’s first order went up to 18,000 pounds, and the next one was 36,000 pounds. “When the order came through it was a godsend,” says Herminjard. “It provided that security and stability we hadn’t been feeling for a year. I had tears in my eyes; our team and our whole crew were stoked.”
“I started to realize the impact of this one very large order,” says Shils, who quickly saw that for suppliers, these bulk orders could be the difference between staying in business and closing up shop. She also reached out to Mary’s Chicken, procuring another form of organic protein for the boxes.
As a food producer, Herminjard points out the value of a partnership between schools and food suppliers. “Schools are a steady, predictable, recurring business,” she says. “The benefits will be felt throughout the supply chain in California.”
Bars or Boxes?
The need to clarify the size of her request came up again when Shils called Kevin Grossman, sales strategy manager at Emeryville-based Clif Bar: Yes, she really meant 18,000 boxes (414,000 bars), not just 18,000 bars.
“Scale is huge; scale changes the world,” says Shils, explaining how costs for organics can get closer to those for conventional goods. “When you’re dealing with massive quantities, everyone is willing to negotiate.” Shils and Jellison have also developed personal relationships with vendors, making it easier to find creative solutions when problems arise. “With all of the sadness and tragedy,” Shils observes, “Covid has also prompted unforeseen innovation.”
Another pandemic-related factor that’s helped create a cost-effective organic supply chain has been the USDA’s decision to provide waivers related to the bidding process. Waivers make it easier to approve new vendors, and the modified process allowed Conscious Kitchen to quickly bring in new suppliers. The district also keeps expenses in check by purchasing seasonal produce and reduces transportation costs by using local suppliers.
On March 4, the first fully organic boxes were distributed to 22,000 families. (This number rose to 23,000 by April.) Boxes included ground beef, crackers, peanut butter, plant-based yogurt, oatmeal, rice, black beans, milk, maple syrup, and fresh oranges, carrots, and onions. “It helps a lot during these hard times,” says Peres Elementary parent Jenisse Sta Elena-Lora. Her family has been especially happy to have fresh fruit, milk, potatoes, beef, and a ham. “We aim for variety,” says Jellison, who changes items each week, always including food for seven breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks per box.
As schools reopen, Shils sees the chance to bring costs for organics even closer to those of conventional foods. For some items, like bread, she’s already found parity in the pricing; other items, like beef, are harder to match because the USDA offers conventional beef as a commodity at a super low per-pound price. It won’t be until the USDA makes organic food available in the commodity category that those items will be equal in cost to conventional ones. An advantage, though, will be that when in-school meals resume, labor costs and prices may go down even further because the district will be purchasing bulk amounts for one central kitchen rather than individual portions to put into boxes. When schools open, the district and Conscious Kitchen are planning a 50% increase in organic procurement.
Shils is also looking at the bigger picture, thinking in particular about the role of organics in schools nationwide: “If we can demonstrate that organics and the organic supply chain can be integrated into the everyday of schools, we shift systems, and maybe we shift the way government is looking at subsidies. Instead of funds going to conventional companies, they go to support organic ingredients.”
Rachel Trachten, Edible East Bay’s associate editor, writes about food and gardening in connection to social justice, education, business, and the environment. View her stories at racheltrachten.contently.com.
From the Conscious Kitchen Cookbook, recipe and photo by Chef Ashley Ugarte
- 8 ounces dry pasta
- Oil for cooking and finishing
- 1 bulb spring onion, chopped
- ½ leek, sliced
- 1 large clove garlic, diced
- 7 spears fresh asparagus (substitute if not in season), chopped on the diagonal
- 2 small carrots, shredded
- 1 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
- ½ cup fresh peas
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 small lemon (for zest and juice)
- Parsley for finishing
- Freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano for finishing
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Follow the cooking time on the pasta package, stirring occasionally. Drain well. Pour the pasta back into the pot.
While the pasta is cooking, heat oil in a skillet over medium heat. Caramelize the onion and leek, about 5 minutes, then add garlic and cook until fragrant.
Add the asparagus, cook until crisp-tender and bright green. Add the carrots, cherry tomatoes, and peas, and cook until the peas are bright green, about 2 minutes.
Add the lemon zest, salt, and pepper to taste. Add veggies to the pasta and toss generously with olive oil, fresh parsley, lemon juice, and parmesan cheese. Enjoy!