When Healthy Schools Campaign started working to improve school food more than a decade ago, most people viewed bad school food as one of the trials and tribulations of childhood—not as the serious issue of health and equity that we all understand today. Back then, when we demanded food that was less processed, freshly prepared and locally grown, we were told it had no place in the conversation about improving student health.
What a difference 12 years makes. Now, the national school meal standards are based on sound nutrition science, and we’ve seen a lot of progress here in Chicago and across the country. Now, the USDA’s Farm to School program and the work of the National Farm to School Network is bringing locally grown food into school kitchens and cafeterias. According to the USDA’s Farm to School Census, during the 2013-2014 school year, schools purchased $800 million worth of local food from farmers, ranchers, fishermen, food processors and manufacturers—a 105 percent increase from the previous year. Even with these changes, there is more room for improvement to reach our vision of a healthy, wholesome and sustainable meals for all students.
With leadership from School Food FOCUS, the next phase of this journey has begun. Last week, School Food FOCUS issued a new school food purchasing tool, called the Ingredient Guide for Better School Food Purchasing. School Food FOCUS, is an organization that works with school districts—including Chicago Public Schools (CPS)—to break down marketplace barriers to sourcing fresh and healthy food.
The new school food purchasing guide can be a game changer. This ingredient guide includes a list of “unwanted ingredients” such as artificial colors and preservatives that are possible carcinogens and should be eliminated from products and a “watch list” that includes ingredients that are common in foods of lower nutritional quality and tend to indicate a highly processed food. Earlier this year we saw a number of major manufacturers take steps in this direction, most notably Kraft and General Mills. Under pressure from consumers, Kraft is stripping all artificial preservatives and synthetic colors from its most iconic item: mac and cheese.
School Food FOCUS reports that schools collectively spend over $16 billion per year to feed our nation’s school children. When they band together and demand change from food manufacturers, real progress is possible. Thanks to School Food FOCUS, school districts will now have the knowledge and tools to make a similar transition to source foods absent of these harmful ingredients and ultimately serve less processed meals to students.