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Constant pandemic-related adjustments, inflation, supply chain disruption and staffing shortages have presented challenges for feeding schoolchildren across the country over the last two years. Right now, Congress is seeking to extend a series of Covid-related waivers that offered schools and families the flexibility they needed to ensure children didn’t go hungry during the pandemic. But it’s still not certain whether they’ll be able to do it.
Meantime we have created huge momentum for school food in California. In 2021, we became the first state in the nation to transform school food by legislating to permanently provide two free school meals each day to all K-12 public school students. Children will start getting the meals in August this year under the Healthy School Meals for All program. Just like textbooks, school meals will now be a universal part of every child’s school day — removing barriers to nutrition and reducing hunger and stigma.
School kitchens across the state are historically underfunded and not equipped to prepare fresh food. But California has set aside $150 million in one-time KIT funding (kitchen, infrastructure and training) for training and equipment to serve freshly prepared meals. The funding means school nutrition professionals can serve more freshly prepared and locally grown food. School kitchen upgrades are intended to increase access to and improve the quality of fresh foods being served. We’ve also funded farm-to-school grants to the tune of $60 million in the last two years.
Put in a simple way, scratch cooking enables school districts to serve the best food. Instead of heating and serving food made elsewhere, cafeteria staff start from scratch.
How does it work?
Instead of a breaded chicken tender or a piece of popcorn chicken, imagine something else. Schools work with local farms to get chicken drumsticks. It sounds simple, but a move like this can be transformational for a school district. The student can learn that meat or poultry comes from a farm. They eat chicken on the bone and start to understand that poultry doesn’t come in nuggets form on the farm. They can understand how meat exists. To go with the chicken, the district might typically serve tater tots. Instead, it buys potatoes. Or carrots. And they can be roasted in the oven at the same temperature as the chicken drumsticks. Now the kids are getting two-thirds of a full meal that’s sourced from local farms.
Through the pandemic, we’ve learned how crucial school food is to America’s food supply. We’ve also learned how many school-age children and families depend on these meals. And we’ve learned how important our school food professionals are. Scratch cooking makes staff feel appreciated for their effort, and children are well-nourished and ready to learn. The kitchen staff are proud of what they’ve made. There’s a connection with the local farms. Supply chains are shorter and more crisis-proof — schools are less vulnerable to rising prices as food gets more difficult to source. Labor costs go to local folks because they are paid to cook in-house.
First partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom has led school food reform in California. Her Farm to School Roadmap for Success highlights four goals and seven principles focusing on things like health equity, climate resilience, building labor sustainability, and most importantly, creating sustainable change. This approach forms the cornerstone of the work that I do, helping districts understand the systems of their school food program and how to create sustainable change through culinary techniques, kitchen efficiencies, equipment changes and leadership initiatives.
What excites me the most is how eager our California district partners are to ask for help and work to create change. They understand that they are the first state to implement Healthy School Meals for All, and they want those meals to be the best they can be. That’s true across the state, from Marin to Oakland and from San Diego to Bakersfield.
Some districts are further ahead than others on their journey to serving fresh, healthy food for all children. Napa Valley Unified, Berkeley Unified, San Luis Coastal, and Tahoe-Truckee Unified school districts are all well into their scratch cooking journeys. But I’ve found that no matter the district, whenever we engage with school staff and they get the scratch cooking bug, they’re keen to learn more and more about how to put it into practice. We’ve started a movement here in California, and we can be proud of how it will inform schools looking at these issues across the country.
Good food is a human right. Improving the quality of school meals helps all kids, and every child in the country deserves good, fresh, wholesome food.
As Congress considers the deadline looming in June, we hope they’ll look to California for inspiration when it comes to putting children’s needs first.
Brandy Dreibelbis is the senior director of school food operations for Chef Ann Foundation which promotes scratch cooking in schools, and former director of food services for Napa Valley School District.
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