USDA Kitchen Equipment Grants to the Rescue!

July 27, 2016

The PEW Charitable Trusts’ interactive map of how USDA kitchen equipment grants have been distributed throughout the United States.

The national debate on the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act is rightfully focused on healthy school food. The most-discussed challenges around serving delicious and nutritious school meals include the budget for school meals (about $1 to spend on food per school meal), time (each recipe must have only six steps or fewer) and the availability of ingredients. But there is a key component that is often missing from the conversation: school kitchens.

The Federal School Lunch Program is 70 years old—and so are many school kitchens! As you might imagine, our standards for what constitutes a healthy school meal have improved significantly in the last several decades. Our schools need the facilities to match. In order to serve freshly prepared produce and proteins rather than the pre-prepared and processed food of the past, kitchens need the right equipment.

Healthy Schools Campaign has seen this challenge first hand in Chicago where many schools throughout the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district did not have the kitchen facilities needed to prepare fresh and healthy school meals from scratch. Many of these school kitchens were designed only to serve highly processed, pre-plated, frozen meals that were heated and served upon arrival at each school. The many inefficiencies of outdated kitchen facilities is a problem we have seen time and time again through HSC’s work with Cooking Up Change student chefs. HSC and our allies have worked with CPS to update kitchen facilities. As a result, these pre-prepared meals have been eliminated. This is progress, but we have a long way to go until school kitchens are properly equipped.

Fortunately, USDA’s kitchen equipment grants have helped many schools update their facilities and infrastructure. Through this program, USDA makes awards of at least $5,000 available to schools to purchase new kitchen equipment and/or renovate their existing kitchens.

The Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project—a joint initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—examined the impact of USDA Kitchen Equipment Grants on individual schools and found that many schools lack a budget for kitchen upgrades. Therefore, schools with outdated kitchens must use inefficient and expensive workarounds to meet the nutritional standards of the Federal School Lunch Program. Very often, school kitchens lack even basic components of a home kitchen, such as adequate refrigeration for fruits, vegetables and other perishables. The Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project has chronicled several such case studies of how these grants can transform the school community with just one new piece of equipment or a new software system.

Proper kitchen equipment and infrastructure are vital to ensuring that all schools have healthy school meals. Pew Charitable Trusts and HSC consider the USDA Kitchen Equipment Grants program to be key to our work advocating for strong nutrition standards and student eligibility for free and reduced lunch in the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. As such, we hope to see it included in CNR.