School Food Justice: strengthening school meals & farm to school in Vermont
Photo Credit: Vermont FEEDWhen Douglas has a full stomach at school, he can focus better on that sticky math problem in front of him.
When Farmer Lauren can sell her veggies or beef to the local school, she can run a stronger business that feeds her community and keeps farms viable.
When Chef Nancy has more students lining up for lunch in her school cafeteria, she has the revenue to expand her offerings and buy more local foods.
It’s easy to connect the dots between these items. And it’s why anti-hunger organizations have been teaming up with farm to school advocates in Vermont to strengthen school meal programs.
To borrow a term from the business world, we call it the “virtuous cycle” of school meals. By expanding meal participation and the food programs offered (like afterschool meals), we ensure that fewer children are hungry, so they are more likely to be ready to learn and participate. With more kids participating in school meal programs, program revenue climbs, so schools can buy more fresh, nutritious, and local products. And with higher quality meals (along with the greater sense of ownership local food brings) more students buy those meals, boosting participation even more. And so the cycle continues.
But where’s the leverage point to nudge this wheel into motion?
There are several. Over the past three years, Hunger-Free Vermont and VT FEED (a project of Shelburne Farms and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of VT), have focused on expanding universal meals through the new Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of the 2010 School Nutrition Act —along with promoting Provision 2 of the National School Lunch Act.
In just two years, these two programs have brought universal meals to around 50 Vermont schools – more than 15% of Vermont’s students.
After using the CEP less than six months, school principals reported at least a 10% increase in participation in school meals (and as high as 38%). They also reported improved school meal program finances, and greater use of local foods and fresh fruits and vegetables. The cycle set in motion!
According to Winooski Schools Superintendent Sean McMannon, “The positive financial impact of CEP has given us more flexibility to purchase local foods. We have more local food on the salad bar, and have been able to provide more variety in our offerings.”
James Taffel, Co-Principal at Barre City Elementary and Middle School, also celebrated their move to universal meals, which has given students more variety and choice. “We started offering virtually limitless fruits and vegetables of many kinds, supporting local farms and farmers whenever we can. Kids just take what they want, and the fabulous part is that they love it!”
Then there are the “spin-off” impacts. Schools reported fewer behavior referrals and school nurse visits. One more check in the “plus” column! And by providing breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students, they’ve erased the stigma of receiving a “free” or “reduced price” meal. Another plus! The increase in demand for local foods also makes wholesale school food programs more viable and identifies them as important customers, rather than simply recipients of donated or low cost products.
In addition to taking advantage of CEP, the Vermont farm to school/anti-hunger coalition has been urging schools to move breakfast after the bell. Research shows that the single most effective intervention a school can make to increase breakfast participation is to move breakfast after the bell in some form (grab and go, classroom, ‘second chance’, etc.).
Over 31 million children receive low cost or free lunches through the National School Lunch Program, which runs every school day, 180 days a year. Those lunches – especially when you factor in growing breakfast, afterschool snack and summer programs – are essential for student health and nutrition.
By putting more fresh local products on the menu, farm to school programs simply make those lunches and snacks healthier. And by getting students to taste, grow, and cook these foods, farm to school ensures the food makes it into their bellies! All students can participate in the benefits of the local foods movement!