How Better School Food Drives Nationwide Change

December 19, 2013

How school food makes a difference for all.

By Rochelle Davis, President + CEO

This past year, we’ve seen many positive shifts in school food. For the first time, the USDA released standards for competitive foods. There’s also more local food being served in school cafeterias than ever before. And at HSC, Cooking up Change contests all over the country have brought student chefs together for culinary competitions, putting student voices front-and-center in the national dialogue about school food.

But the conversation about school food also has broader, more sweeping implications for the future of our nation and the health of the next generation. Earlier this fall, I spoke at an Urban Food Sustainability Summit sponsored by Loyola’s Chicago Institute of Environmental Sustainability. I was asked to comment on the role that school food plays in food systems change. I shared the following three reasons why school food programs are an important part of food system transformation.

Public institutions/public money: School food is one of the few places where the government has an opportunity and obligation to set nutrition standards and procurement policies. The federal government invests $14.8 billion in school meal programs, and local school boards manage these programs. This creates an important opportunity for the public to advocate for a food system that is affordable, healthy and sustainable and promotes the broader public good.

Food offered in schools can drive change in the consumer food market: New USDA nutrition standards adopted last year brought school meals into alignment with the U.S. Dietary Guidelines. Schools are now required to offer products high in whole grains, and meet limits on fat and sodium. In many communities, school boards are also requiring school food to support local and sustainable agriculture. We are hearing from industry that this demand for healthier products for school meals is driving innovation for healthier items in the consumer market.

Educating the next generation of consumers about food, health and sustainability:  By connecting the changes in the cafeteria to what students are learning, school food has the opportunity to influence the taste buds and values of the next generations of consumers.

As the year ends, we’re looking forward to another year of working hard to make schools healthier places — which means positive steps towards a healthier nation for all.