School food seems to always be in the news, consistently being criticized. But, it’s important to understand the obstacles that schools face when feeding students as part of the massive National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which according to USDA data, served nearly 5 billion lunches in more than 100,000 schools in 2018.
Schools that receive funding from USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) are requires to meet strict nutrition standards. However, in 2018, the USDA announced a final rule that rolled back federal school nutrition standards instituted as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 led by Michelle Obama. As part of the final rule, standards on foods such as grains and flavored milks were reduced, as well as sodium limits. The USDA notes that this change is an improvement because it, “gives schools more control over food service decisions an greater ability to offer wholesome and appealing meals that reflect local preferences.”
There there’s the cost. School foodservice programs face enduring budgetary challenges to provide healthy meals that students will actually eat. These challenges are unique to their districts and communities.
The good news is, there are organizations that understand these challenges and are working tirelessly to improves school food. Below are three that are paving the way to a healthier future for children in schools.
FoodCorps: FoodCorps is a non-profit organization that partners with 350 schools to provide kids with healthy food, helping ensure all kids are well-nourished and ready to learn. As part of the AmeriCorps program, FoodCorps places service members in communities with limited resources where they spend a year working with teachers and students to incorporate programs to improve school food – such as nutrition education and building on-site gardens. According to their site, about 73% of FoodCorps schools had measurably healthier school food environments by the end of the school year, and in schools with more of FoodCorps’ hands-on learning, children are eating up to three times as many fruits and vegetables.
Brigaid: Founded by celebrity chef, Dan Giusti, Brigaid is working to improve school food by providing students with tasty, healthful meals that adhere to federal nutrition guidelines. They do this by bringing restaurant chefs in to schools to train and empower local school food service teams. The restaurant chefs teach the school food staff skills such as menu planning and how to prepare meals from scratch using fresh ingredients, all on a budget.
NYC Healthy School Food Alliance: The NYC Healthy School Food Alliance was founded by food writer and Brooklyn mom, Andrea Strong. A grassroots movement that has recently organized several events such as the first March for Healthy School Food, NYC Healthy School Food Alliance is “a whole-child proposal for school food including changes in both menu and curriculum.” Their website even hosts resources for community members to become involved in advocacy in their local schools – including how to start a wellness committee and sample letters to school and other elected public officials.
School food is a complicated topic that involves many issues and stakeholders – including the most discerning customers – children. I am hopeful that these organizations (and others) are making bold moves to change the health of future generations will lead the way, but they need support from government and the food industry to provide the resources to make it happen.