Improving School Food Requires Partnerships and Understanding (Part 2)

February 7, 2012

A 2-part series by Alison Hastings, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission; Beth Feehan, Director, NJ Farm to School Network; Deb Bentzel, Farm to Institution Program Manager, Fair Food.

Read Part 1 (Defining Farm to School in New Jersey) here.

Part 2: Understanding the National School Lunch Program

By Deb Bentzel
Farm to Institution Program Manager
Fair Food

For the first time in 15 years, the US Department of Agriculture has updated nutritional guidelines for the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs.

Over the past several weeks, we’ve heard befuddling things about tomato paste, potatoes, and how kids will never eat kale. But what “farm to school” advocates and school food professionals need to hear is how great these new guidelines are for kids, how it is more cost-effective than originally proposed for schools, and how the process of public commenting really did influence decisions and make better guidelines.

(Click image to see full size)

First, it’s important to understand how school meal programs operate in general, in order to appreciate the new USDA guidelines. It’s a complicated system with complex supply chains, oversight and administration. Open dialogue is essential in order to dispel myths about school food; celebrate these impressive and progressive new guidelines; and exchange ideas and best practices and share thoughts on what comes next. How can advocates and food service professionals open up that dialogue?

Hold a meeting.

The School District of Philadelphia’s Division of Food Services recently invited a group of about 70 stakeholders, district staff, and partners to gather together for “Tray Talk: Getting to Know School Food Services.” Creating space for communication is equally important for district staff as well as advocates; both are interested in building a better school food environment for students. In addition, district staff need the opportunity to share their success, challenges, and new initiatives was also a priority for the agenda.

On January 27th, in Philadelphia, a group of anti-hunger, school food, food systems, nutrition, and child wellness advocates gathered for a multi-faceted presentation on the state of school food in the city’s public schools. In addition to multiple presentations from district staff, The Food Trust, the coordinating organization for Mid-Atlantic Farm to School programs, gave a brief tutorial on the newly-released nutritional guidelines. Active Farm to School partners had the opportunity to share their work, progress, and challenges. Collectively, these groups shared their visions for healthy schoolchildren, healthy school food environments, and a healthier local economy.

The January meeting underscored, once again, how vital collaborations are in understanding complicated topics, such as federal nutrition guidelines and meal reimbursement rates; and how important open discourse among both advocates and administrators is to making progress towards a healthier future for our schoolchildren.

For more information on healthy school lunches, check out these links: the National Farm to School Network, the NJ Farm to School NetworkThe Food Trust‘s Farm to School program, the USDA‘s Farm to School Initiative, Fair Food‘s Farm to Institution program, and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission‘s Food System Planning resources.

DVRPC and their partners are regular contributors to the Dodge blog on issues of food policy and regional food systems.

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