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Healthy School Meals for All: Chef Ann on What It Takes to Make It Happen

We sat down with Chef Ann Cooper to chat about The Value of Universal School Meals for Colorado K12 Students and Schools, an issue brief and report released by the Colorado Food Systems Advisory Council this summer. The report highlights the many benefits of providing free access to school meals, such as the potential to increase student health, academic achievement, career development, and even the health of the planet. Read on to learn Chef Ann’s take on healthy school meals for all.

Universal School Meals (Healthy School Meals for All) have been a hot topic in the school food world for many years, but especially as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly made its way across the country in 2020. With the pandemic came unprecedented food insecurity, with many families questioning how their children would access breakfast and lunch each day. Thankfully, the federal government began a series of waivers and extensions for “free meals for all,” which currently are set to last through the end of school year 2021-2022.

This summer, the Colorado Food Systems Advisory Council (COFSAC) released an issue brief and report focused on The Value of Universal School Meals for Colorado K12 Students and Schools. Chef Ann Cooper worked as a member of the COFSAC committee for over a year on this ground-breaking and impactful report. The committee found many benefits of providing free access to school meals, like eliminating meal debt, increasing participation, and more. Without the need to pay, students’ participation in the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs would no longer be considered a reflection of household income or ability to purchase meals. Along with the aforementioned benefits, healthy school meals for all, especially when paired with scratch cooking, was found to be associated with improved physical and mental health, reduced behavioral/developmental difficulties, and diet-related chronic diseases.

In July, California and Maine became the first states to provide school meals at no cost to students, offering all K-12 public school students in those states free breakfast and lunch at school. These successes were largely due to strong and long-standing advocacy in California, as well as the benefit of Maine being a small state of about 1.3 million, with only 174 school districts and 617 schools. Because of the current federal guidelines, it is unclear how California and Maine will execute their plans for universal school meals in the near future, or what the financial ramifications will be. But what is clear, based on the research, is that universal access to free meals at school has the potential to increase student health, academic achievement, career development, and even the health of the planet. Read on to learn Chef Ann’s take on healthy school meals for all.

What changes would school nutrition programs face going into a school year with universal school meals in place?

First, we should stop calling this program “universal school meals” and start calling it “healthy school meals for all.” That’s really what it’s about. Nutrition Programs would hopefully have really increased participation. Depending on how the regulations are finalized, we would see paperwork potentially go down and hopefully the number of healthy meals go up.

Based on your extensive experience with school nutrition, what do you consider the number one benefit to healthy school meals for all, from a departmental perspective?

Feeding every student; giving every child access to healthy meals—stigma-free access to every meal in school.

There is an abundance of information in this report that discusses why healthy school meals for all are beneficial. Why do you think lawmakers might be hesitant about adopting free meals and what do you believe is the strongest argument to change their opinion?

Money. It depends who they are. Some politicians don’t like social safety nets, and taxes might have to increase and/or funds will need to be reallocated. I believe the number just for Colorado is an additional $130 million dollars per school year to feed every student. That’s new money over the money that’s already being spent. I think it’s political. And as with all politics, it’s messy. But I don’t think there’s a school district out there that doesn’t think that healthy school meals for all makes sense.

The Universal School Meals
report states, “If every student not eating school lunch chose to do so twice a week, Austin Independent School District (AISD) could serve entirely organic produce; and if every student not eating school lunch chose to do so three times a week, AISD could serve organic milk at every meal.” Can you elaborate on how higher Average Daily Participation (ADP) translates to better quality ingredients in the context of healthy school meals for all?

If you can bring in additional meals and the commensurate additional funding without proportionally increasing payroll, that’s ideal. So for instance, if you had 10 labor hours to feed 200 kids, but now those 10 labor hours can feed 250 kids, your meals per labor hour goes from 20 to 25, and that incrementally is going to lower your labor percentage as it relates to revenue. And if that money could go into quality food, you have the success that AISD describes in the report. The largest expenses in school food are food and labor, so if the labor can go down then you can have more money for quality food. And the more students you’re feeding, the more revenue you have.

Does higher quality food always mean high cost in the school food world?

It doesn’t have to. If you’re scratch cooking, I would say no. It’s about the symbiotic relationship between food costs and payroll costs, and as your payroll cost as a percentage goes down, your food cost as a percentage could go up, or vice versa. If you use chicken nuggets your food cost percentage might be high but it doesn’t take much labor to do it, so your labor cost percentage is low. But if you go to fresh raw chicken that needs to be roasted, your food cost could go down as a percentage and your labor cost goes up.

report states, “Successfully expanding scratch-cooked, nutritious meals for students also requires investments in higher quality food, trained labor, and scale/facility appropriate equipment.” Factoring in the potential of healthy school meals for all, what are some of the foreseeable barriers to these investments? Do you have any tips for food service professionals that feel intimidated by these barriers?

First, you’d have to have the money to buy the equipment, but it seems like that’s going to happen through the proposed American Families Plan. But then there’s training. You have to have the equipment, and just having a piece of equipment isn’t enough: you have to be able to hook it up to utilities, you have to know how to use it, you have to be able to train the staff to correctly use it, you have to have maintenance for it, and it has to be put in the right position within the kitchen. It has to be sized according to, not what you’re doing today but, hopefully, what you might be doing in five years so the equipment isn’t obsolete before you use it. And it has to be menu-driven. You have to have all those pieces in place.

The Lunch Box has a lot of information on scratch cooking, facilities, and training. There is no “quick tip” because every operation is unique, every director is unique, and that’s why we do assessments. What their readiness is, what their finances are, what their union situation is like, what their equipment is like—it all varies. I think you can use a lot of the information on The Lunch Box to move these types of initiatives forward.

How would healthy school meals for all expand the benefits of scratch cooking in schools? In other words, how do healthy school meals for all allow for more districts to increase their amount of scratch cooked school food?

If you’re feeding almost every kid at every meal, you have more money coming in, and you can decrease payroll cost as a percentage of revenue and increase food cost, or increase labor cost and decrease food cost. If you want to scratch cook, you might need more staff, but maybe you can offset that with better equipment and culinary technology. Even raw, clean label chicken is going to cost you less per pound than a chicken nugget or a clean label chicken strip. So it’s really about managing your operation, understanding the symbiotic relationship between food cost and labor cost. And then how scratch cooking can support an increase in skill sets, increase quality of food because of the additional revenue coming in, which should increase the health of the students, and potentially the health of the planet by incorporating more sustainable practices such as replacing paper products with reusables.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic provide a sort of testing ground for universal school meals?

I don’t know that there’s a good answer to that because for a really long time schools were closed. Most schools were closed from last March 2020 until the beginning of SY 22. And so all the food was being sent home or much of it. The majority of schools were doing remote feeding. Even though the meals were free, I’m not sure that last school year was a testing ground for what’s happening in schools now when we’re mostly back to feeding students in the cafeterias. I think the challenge is, right now some schools still have remote feeding, some schools are feeding in the classroom, some in the cafeteria, some outside, some have a hybrid model. I think many schools saw participation go up during COVID, but a lot of schools saw participation going down with remote learning and that has to do with the free and reduced percentage of the school districts in some cases. So if the school districts had high F/R percentages and the students weren’t in-person, then many school districts saw their finances spiral into the “red”.

In this
Issue Brief, the section “Next Steps for Colorado” states that the state should “lead in the research, development, and implementation of policy options at the federal and state level to provide access to universal school meals for all Colorado students.” From your perspective, what would this entail? What are the actual “next steps” to moving forward and making healthy school meals for all a reality in Colorado and nationally?

I don’t think anybody knows the answer to that. I think after this school year, we’ll see if there’s good evaluation done and see what Average Daily Participation (ADP) increases look like, if there’s subsequent cost decreases, if we even stay in school… I just don’t think we know all of that information yet. I think we need to do research on the school districts in Colorado and what their ADP turns out like, what their payroll and food cost percentages look like, what their fund balances look like at year-end, and what health outcomes might have changed. I think that’s the research component and then from there, we can see what really worked and develop policy. I don’t want to get in front of what’s happening on the ground. This is a time when we should be doing research. But research that looks at this school year won’t be complete until November 2022, at best.

Thanks for your thoughts here, Chef Ann. Is there anything else you want to add?

Healthy school meals for all, if you take the points from the report, is going to have positive health outcomes for all students, it takes away stigma, it has the potential, with scratch cooking, to increase career development, and it certainly has the potential to increase academic achievement. There’s so many good things that come out of it. And as I said previously, it also has the potential to change planetary health. Student health, academic achievement, career development, planetary health—all those things could come from healthy school meals for all if it’s paired with scratch cooking and it’s really healthy.


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