Investing in School Food, from Congress to the Kitchen

February 07, 2014

Cooking up Change sheds light on challenges involving school food preparation, facilities.

Cooking up Change season is underway, adding students’ voices from across the country to the national conversation around school food. Cooking up Change challenges high-school students to create a great-tasting lunch under the same constraints faced by school kitchens every day. That means meeting USDA nutrition standards, using only ingredients available for food service, working within a tight budget and more.

Every year, students tell us that overcoming these barriers was no easy task. But their experiences do inform their ability to speak about the real-life issues around school food. In June 2013, for the Cooking up Change national finals in Washington, D.C., HSC brought students to Capitol Hill where they spoke at a briefing about their experiences.

Investing in school kitchen facilities was definitely on HSC’s list of needed improvements. And this year, Congress did something about it! In January Congress passed a federal budget that included $25 million for improving school food service facilities [pdf – see page 52 & 53].

This increased spending moves us in the right direction. While it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what is ultimately needed, it is $15 million more than in the previous year. Schools across the country will be able to tap into this grant program to invest in their facilities. And it comes on the heels of a recent report issued by Kids’ Safe & Healthful Foods Project that found only 1 in 10 school districts nationwide (12 percent) have all the kitchen equipment needed to serve healthy school meals. The report is a joint initiative of Pew Charitable Trust and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—which began work in January 2012 to assess the equipment, infrastructure and training needs of school food authorities.

More than 3,000 school food professionals completed a survey about healthy food prep, infrastructure needs and cost. The report tells a complex story and provides data that is consistent with Cooking up Change students’ experiences.

On the plus side, 94 percent of schools report that they will meet the new USDA nutrition standards this year. The picture, however, isn’t all rosy. Here’s what troubles us:

  • 88 percent of schools surveyed need additional equipment to meet the current lunch standards

  • Of those schools, 85 percent are “making do” with a workaround that is increasing their labor and costs

  • 58 percent of schools do not have a budget to purchase equipment

We’re by no means where we need to be, but maybe Congress is beginning to hear what our students are making clear — more investments are needed. So, HSC will be back in D.C. again this June with another group of Cooking up Change students, where they will continue to highlight those needs that remain unmet.