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Free Lunch Kid Part 2: Continuing the Conversation on Healthy School Food

CAF board member, David de la Rosa, is extremely passionate about the movement around school food reform. His focus is primarily on empowering private businesses and investors to embrace healthy school food. To read David’s initial blog on what it was like to grow up as a “free lunch kid” and learn about his determination to positively impact the physical and mental well-being of millions of children across the country, click here.

I first learned that Chef Ann had the underground nickname “Renegade Lunch Lady” several weeks after I met her via a phone call. “Renegade?,“ I thought. She didn’t fit the profile of a rebel or outlaw at first blush. She had a calm yet passionate demeanor. She listened carefully as I expressed my own passion about school food infrastructure. But after watching her TedTalk and the mountains she had to move to transition a school district to scratch-cooking, I understood how she got the nickname. Through her work she has rallied key stakeholders, school districts across the country, and even Congress to understand our children deserve better school meals. And she is absolutely right - they do.

Food is Community

It’s been over a year since I’ve immersed myself into the world of food infrastructure, particularly school food. Most recently I dialed into a Congressional Briefing hosted by the Hunger Caucus in collaboration with the Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. During the call there was a testimonial by a mother, who recently participated in a Fresh Produce Program, and she beautifully described her experience:

“…not only is my A1C [blood sugar levels] going down… I am having a better time with my family… and it’s all focused around food but not like it used to be… it used to just be, okay it’s time to eat and everybody would be on their phones, and they would be on their laptops, and it wasn’t like community, it was just food time. But now we are cooking together… we are talking about the foods that we are eating… we are shopping together…it’s more than just the food we are buying from the store… it’s about relationships...”

As she spoke, with her young son by her side, it was evident that regardless of background or income, healthy food is desirable and can have a positive impact on a family’s daily life. In the context of school food, I’ve met people who have told me “Kids don’t like to eat healthy lunches or salads.” I don’t think this is true at all, especially if the food includes fresh ingredients, full of color, flavor and nutrients. Like any food hall, by enhancing the dining experience and food quality we can enrich the school community and the relationship children have with their food.

Opportunity for Change

One of my nutrition gurus, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, recently highlighted that “Among 2- to 5-year-olds, 1 in 10 children are already obese, and among teens, 1 in 5 are already obese. And 1 in 5 teens also have prediabetes...” As a father of two young children, this statistic is heart-breaking – it can’t be real, but it is! How can children, many who come from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds, focus inside classrooms when there is highly processed, sugary, or salty foods inside their bellies? What are the long-term behavioral consequences of eating this type of food from K to 12th grade?

Sadly, 40% of adult Americans are considered obese. While school food isn’t to blame for this outcome, improving school food is a major opportunity to change the eating habits and relationship with food for millions of children, daily. With obesity costing Americans well over $240 billion annually (~$1,000 per adult American), there is both a health and economic reason to re-evaluate our school food systems.

In 2021, I met with Mara Fleishman, CEO of the Chef Ann Foundation, when she coordinated a tour of the Boulder Valley School District’s Central Kitchen. The 33,000 sf central kitchen was filled with commercial grade equipment and cooking methods that provided the district the ability to eventually serve 17,000 scratch-cooked meals daily. After the tour, I had several big picture questions. Why aren’t there more central kitchens across the country? Why aren’t school districts using locally produced fruits and vegetables on their menus? Is there a role the private sector can play in accelerating a solution?

So what have we learned about food systems? American diets are not great and it’s costing Americans billions of dollars each year in health care costs. School lunchrooms are daily opportunities to reshape the American diet, but we need to transition our school food from highly processed heat-and-serve lunch time experiences to healthier, freshly prepared lunches that incorporate regionally produced ingredients. I have yet to meet someone who is against serving our kids healthier meals. There are a number of hurdles to improving the quality of the school lunch program (all of which the Chef Ann Foundation works on). Two main issues are:

  1. Limited Staff and Training: Schools districts that want to transition to scratch-cooking have a tough time hiring qualified staff that have the skills and experience to operate central and on-site kitchens that are equipped with commercial grade equipment.

  2. Lack of School Food Infrastructure: School districts were not designed with ample production, storage, and freezer space to process, produce, and distribute scratch-cooked meals across their school district. Experts estimate that California would have to invest over $4 billion in school food infrastructure to transition a portion of its 1,000 + school districts to scratch-cooking.

California & CAF: Cooking Up Change

As a California native, I have been excited about the huge strides the state has been making to change the access and quality of food in our schools. In 2021, California passed the nation’s first free school lunch program for every student regardless of income. Several months ago, California allocated $60M to the California Farm to School Program to incubate fresh food campaigns across the state. This is five times the figure that the Federal government has budgeted for its national farm-to-school program. California has also allocated over $150 million for school kitchen upgrades and food service training. These are clear signs the State wants to change the status quo of school food.

Just last month, the Chef Ann Foundation launched the Healthy Food Pathway Program with California Community Colleges, a program aimed at developing the culinary talent that California schools need to transition from heat-and-serve to scratch-cooked meals. As a Board member, I am extremely excited about the launch of the program and the impact it will have on school food improvements. With California leading the way, and the Chef Ann Foundation cooking up change, I am optimistic that we’ll see better school food at a kitchen near you.

Renegades Will Change School Food

I’ll close with a few thoughts. We need more renegades to change school food. These renegades shouldn’t just come from the non-profit or government sector. They can also come from the private sector including venture capital firms, food-tech start-ups, impact investors, philanthropies, teacher pensions, healthcare companies, food companies, and the list goes on. If you’re interested in learning more about the impact and importance of school food, check out CAF’s Why School Food Matters page.


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