School lunches were the butt of many jokes and reaped plenty of scorn from both the left and right over the years. Some conservatives went so far as to suggest free school lunches contribute to a “cycle of dependency,” though the real beneficiaries of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program have historically been the huge food companies that score copious revenues from selling products directly to school districts across the country. Even snacks sold at full value earn school districts a federal subsidy. Nevertheless, cash strapped school districts do not have much financial wiggle room when it comes to serving these lunches, eaten by at least 31 million schoolchildren annually.

But more school districts are offering better fare, both in taste and sourcing. The chicken nuggets and pizza still make an appearance, but at least the chicken is increasingly baked and the crust may be whole wheat. Plus the growing interest in gardening, composting and knowing where our food comes from has given the pallid mid-day meal a shot in the arm. Even the USDA got into the act, with programs such as Farm to School that aim to link farmers with school districts.

Here are five innovative and sustainable school lunch programs and businesses that garnered our attention, ranked in no particular order:

Red Rabbit, New York: Launched by a former Wall Street equity trader in 2005, this made-from-scratch school lunch supplier grew into a huge success. As recently profiled on Forbes, Rhys Powell changed his strategy after he secured a $500,000 investment -- shifting from a focus on private schools to public school districts, which require food costs to remain below $3 a meal. Now the B Corp certified company prepares over 100,000 meals a day for schools in New York City and Westchester County. Red Rabbit also educates students, parents and teachers about nutrition and wellness. Recipes include a multi-veggie slaw, mashed sweet potatoes and no-cook oatmeal.

Good Earth Natural Foods, Marin, California: Yes, it sounds like a cliché, but a school district in posh Marin County, just north of San Francisco, turned heads when its school lunches became all organic in 2013. While the county is home to some of the wealthiest Bay Area citizens, the Sausalito Marin School District educates those kids in the district whose parents don’t have the means to send them to private school: 95 percent of its students qualify for free- or reduced-price school lunches.

One of the district’s vendors is Good Earth Natural Foods, which says it feeds 1,300 kids a day across Marin. Individual plastic containers are eschewed for serving out of steel catering pans in order to reduce waste. The company describes its choices in painstaking detail: Tortillas are made with organic corn but not organic oil; oven roasted turkey from Diestel is not fed organic grain; in sum, local ingredients are preferred over staying true to 100 percent organic. Judging by the menu items, however, this is a huge step up from the dull and even inedible school lunches of the past.

The Munchie Machine, Boulder, Colorado: Food trucks are a rage that will not go away. And considering the economic opportunities and creative fare they have provided, that’s a good thing.

One of them, the Munchie Machine in Boulder, serves grub that it says is USDA (ahem) school lunch compliant. The menu may be pricey for many students, but administrators figure having a truck parked outside Boulder High School is better than kids wandering off to buy junk food and fizzy drinks. And because the truck follows USDA rules, kids are allowed to (gasp) nosh on options such as quesadillas, burgers and quinoa salad in the school cafeteria.

Oakland Unified School District: Oakland scored attention in recent years for having one of the more sustainable school lunch programs in the country. Over 21,000 students are served lunches with ingredients that can be found at the local Whole Foods. A creative procurement team is able to source meat from a Central Valley free-range poultry producer and by-catch from local fisheries that otherwise would have gone to waste. The district also follows standards set by the Center for Good Food Purchasing, which is emerging as the “LEED” of school lunch supplies.

Baltimore City Public Schools: Since 2009, Baltimore has offered “Meatless Monday” options for its students. (Hard-core carnivores, however, can still chose a meat option if they insist.) The district also has a partnership with a nearby farm in suburban Catonsville. Great Kids Farm and its 33-acre spread offers several health, nutrition and farm to fork educational programs for Baltimore students from pre-Kindergarten through high school.

Who else should be added to the list? Share your ideas in the comments section.

Image credit: Boulder Valley School District/Facebook

Published earlier today on Triple Pundit.

About The Author

Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye is the founder and editor of GreenGoPost.com. Based in California, he specializes in social media consulting and strategic communications. A journalist and writer since 2009, his work has appeared on Triple Pundit , The Guardian's Sustainable Business site and has appeared on Inhabitat and Earth911. His focus is making the business case for sustainability and corporate social responsibility. Areas of interest include the <a Middle East, sustainable development in The Balkans, Brazil and Korea. He was a new media journalism fellow at the International Reporting Project, for which he covered child survival in India during February 2013. Contact him at leon@greengopost.com. You can also reach out via Twitter (Leon Kaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). Since 2013, he has spent much of his time in Abu Dhabi, UAE, working with Masdar, the emirate's renewable energy company. He lives in Fresno, California.