Change for Good and School Food Policy

December 14, 2021 | Written By:

Photo of Shelbi Johnson, student at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies

Throughout 2021, HSC has hosted a series of Change for Good forums, highlighting our ambitious call to integrate health and equity into the nation’s policy and practice. On December 9, we held the final event for the year, focusing on one of the most essential pillars of that work: school food. Rochelle Davis, HSC President and CEO, was joined by Audrey Rowe, HSC board member and administrator for Food and Nutrition Services at the USDA during the Obama Administration; Christie Vilsack, wife of USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, the former First Lady of Iowa and a tireless advocate for food access for children; and Shelbi Johnson, a high school chef from Los Angeles who is part of HSC’s new Cooking up Change Showcase.

The panel led a dynamic conversation about the future of school food and answered questions from an audience made up of parents and caregivers, school leaders, culinary professionals, student chefs, education and health leaders and advocacy partners.

Cooking up Change Showcase
In addition to digging deep on what is currently at stake for food policy at the national level, the Change for Good In addition to digging deep on what is currently at stake for food policy at the national level, the Change for Good Forum celebrated the launch of HSC’s new Cooking up Change Showcase, which challenges high school chefs from around the country to submit their recipes for a healthy and delicious school meal and presents a curated collection of recipes from 15 years of Cooking up Change, HSC’s signature healthy cooking competition. Check out the site and visit regularly to learn the latest about national school food policy, celebrate talented student chefs and find new recipes!

For almost 20 years, HSC has worked with partners on improving school food at the local and national levels. HSC sees healthy school meals as a key to supporting student health and success, and research backs that up. School meals are also a key tool in this country’s arsenal to fight hunger. Many students from under-resourced communities get the majority of their daily meals at school.

During these nearly two decades of work, there has been great progress and much to celebrate. There was a laser focus on improving school food during the Obama Administration and nutrition standards grew by leaps and bounds at that time, but there have been major challenges as well. Rolling back nutritional standards and reducing universal access to healthy school meals was a big priority for the USDA during the Trump Administration. 

Now is an important moment for school food advocates. The COVID-19 pandemic brought the nation’s attention to urgent issues around access to school meals and congress, state education agencies and school districts acted quickly to allow more children to receive school meals at no cost. Unfortunately, because of a variety of reasons, including different delivery methods, supply chain challenges and labor shortages, some of those changes also relaxed nutritional standards. Now, it’s time for the Biden Administration to double down on improving the nutritional requirements for school food, equipping schools so they can cook and serve healthy meals, encouraging locally grown food and increasing access to free meals for millions of students. There are two key opportunities coming up in the near future.

First, the Senate will soon take up the Build Back Better legislation, which would allow 9 million more students to receive free meals without going through a cumbersome bureaucratic process, bring $500 million to districts in school kitchen equipment grants, and provide $634 million for a Healthy School Meal Incentives demonstration project. 

Then, early next year, the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act (CNA), which funds the entire federal school meal program, will pick up steam. The updated CNA must protect and strengthen evidence-based nutrition standards for all food that is available in schools, strengthen programs and policies that help schools be successful in providing nutritious school foods, ensure that child nutrition programs are culturally appropriate and prioritize locally sourced and minimally processed foods. The CNA should also expand — and make permanent — universal access to school food. Transparency and accountability are essential, so the CNA should provide technical assistance and mandate public reports on progress to support schools in meeting evidence-based standards.

There is a lot at stake for the future of school food, especially for schools serving BIPOC students. The passage of Build Back Better, paired with a strong Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization, will directly address childhood poverty as well as the health and long-term success of America’s schoolchildren. It must be a priority for this country.

Stay tuned for more events on the topic of school food and plans for the Change for Good series in 2022.

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