In March the School Food FOCUS (transforming Food Options for Children in Urban Schools) held its second annual meeting. The group helps school districts with more than 40,000 students to procure more healthful, sustainable and locally sourced foods. FSD talked with Dorothy Brayley, Learning Lab manager and executive director of Kids First, a non-profit student wellness initiative in Rhode Island, and Toni Liquori, executive director of School Food FOCUS, to find out about the group’s challenges and progress.
What is School Food FOCUS and what is your mission?
Liquori: This initiative has been in process for a while. We developed it from some work that I did in New York City in 2002. It was in that work that we realized the power of working collaboratively in making changes in the foods that were available. Through that we began to think that if one city can begin to make real and concrete changes toward foods that are more healthful, how good would it be if we could bring more cities together to do this. Really, in terms of kids’ health and the environment, it’s not like we have a long time to get this right.
The question became how to bring many cities together. We know the power of the national Farm to School network and we know the network has a tough time reaching the large school districts, chiefly because of the volume. We started to create a universe of the large, primarily urban districts, that have more than 40,000 students enrolled. That number is about 140. We decided that we couldn’t really speak to all of them. We wanted to speak to those who might be interested in this notion of redirecting their purchasing processes. The school systems are not necessarily connected to wholesome, whole food because so much of the food is processed. By talking with folks who are key to the school food system, we ended up pulling together 17 school districts in 2007. Because of this notion of collaborating and believing very strongly that this was not only a system for school systems, but it really involved the wider community, we asked each of these districts to bring in an organization outside of themselves that they could envision working with over time and helping them to redirect their food purchasing practices. That gives us a range of skills, concerns, questions from outside of the school system.
In 2007, we conducted two, two-and-a-half-day meetings, and those meetings really laid the base for what FOCUS would become. There are three large program areas: the Learning Lab, in which we drill down how they want to make changes in the foods they are procuring; the second has to do with policy because any of this on-the-ground work has to go hand in hand with policy; the third area has a lot to do with communications, internal and external, and getting the message out. Not everyone is interested in changes, and we don’t have the capacity to change the minds of people who want to stay the same. We now have 29 districts working with us.
What do you see as the biggest barriers for school nutrition programs sourcing healthier, more sustainable foods?
Brayley: One of the barriers is the “business-as-usual” barrier. Everyone is so busy trying to put out the meals. They don’t really have time to look for options, or ask their vendors questions or tell them what new options they would like to see. There is a second barrier, which is industry’s willingness to respond without knowing what the demand will be. We can put out criteria, but industry in order to respond to that criteria would incur investment costs in order to change. Third, probably the one cited by most people as being the major barrier, is price. Given the financial structure of child nutrition programs and the funding, what are the types of foods that are affordable?
How is School Food FOCUS helping districts source these types of foods under the cost parameters?
Brayley: The industry knows the cost structure of school foodservice. There is no secret as to what school foodservice directors have available to them in terms of money. Now the question is, what can the industry produce knowing the cost structure of school foodservice and/or how can you improve what you produce knowing the cost structure?
We have worked with some districts to source different products. In some cases, local produce is less expensive. If there is money that can be saved in local produce than there is additional money that can go into the purchase of a better bread or chicken product. Some of this is internal to the school district and how they manage their budget. Some of it is really pushing industry to try a little higher to get us better products within our cost profile. FOCUS is working with the USDA to figure out how the USDA rules and regulations play into this. For example, there is a two-ounce protein requirement for every plate. That takes a significant amount of money. Perhaps other protein sources such as beans, could be utilized better, and perhaps protein that exists in bread and vegetables could be counted toward the two ounces, and therefore a smaller piece of meat or a smaller amount of cheese would be sufficient.
What is the Real School Food Show and what types of products are displayed?
Brayley: Working with Kids First, we did some vendor shows where the products were truly based on criteria of products that the buyers want to see that they really haven’t had access to in the traditional school food system. Kids First was brought in to FOCUS with the idea of a showcase for products for the Annual Meeting.
In managing the Learning Lab, I work with pilot districts. The first pilot selected was in St. Paul, Minn., and they laid out priorities for changes in the foods that they buy. The goal was to utilize this resource and plug it in so that the changes could happen quickly and to share those changes with the rest of the FOCUS districts. In doing that we struggled with influencing the type of bread that could be available to the district. We also struggled with poultry. They were trying to source a different kind of chicken. With 40,000 students, they did not have enough collaborative power to influence those two industries. We did make some significant changes in their milk and local produce purchases. Bread and chicken were two items that the larger group of FOCUS needed to work on collaboratively. It spun out a parallel project to bring the FOCUS districts around these two products to help them align themselves along certain criteria that is more healthful, more local and more sustainably produced. We developed the criteria and put it out to industry to respond with products for a showcase. In doing this we have helped St. Paul to get access to whole-grain breads from their current vendor, which they did not have access to before.
For example, the criteria for breads to be shown at the Food Show were: whole-grain versions or products or very high percentage of whole grains with a preference given to products that are "clean label,” meaning no artificial/chemical additives, free of genetically modified ingredients and made without high fructose corn syrup. We seek out locally made food items processed from locally grown ingredients.
We had a hard time finding products from large vendors who traditionally sell to school foodservice that met the criteria. We did find four vendors that do not traditionally sell to school foodservice but are very interested in getting into the school foodservice business.
One of the features of the second annual meeting of School Food FOCUS was learning how some districts source healthier, sustainable foods. What are some examples of tactics these districts use?
Brayley: Chicago Public Schools is doing a fresh, local, frozen program. They’ve worked through a distributor to source vegetables and fruits right from farm fields. That product is brought to a processor in the area that had excess capacity. Now this fresh, local product is flash-frozen and is served to Chicago Public School children all year. They are seeing more students taking vegetables and fruit than ever before.
Denver Public Schools has gotten into more local produce. They also are working on a project where they will bring grass-fed beef from Colorado ranchers through a cook-chill facility several blocks from the school district that had excess capacity. It will produce things like taco meat out of the local beef and have it in a form that Denver Public Schools can use. They don’t have a central kitchen and the individual schools really could not take in raw beef right now.
Portland Public Schools has been trying to get a local grain called shepherd’s grain into the breads, pizza crusts and breakfast bars. They went to their bread vendor and said they really wanted to use this grain because they know where it comes from and want to support our local economy and the bread vendor are now using shepherd’s grain in those products. Once a month they do a local lunch day where everything on the lunch tray is locally sourced.