April 24, 2014
To prepare healthy meals with local produce for hundreds or perhaps thousands of students per day, it helps to have the right tools. Thanks to $25 million in funding to states, announced on April 18 by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), schools around the country will get help upgrading kitchen equipment and infrastructure in order to more effectively and efficiently serve healthy school meals.
Currently, 90 percent of schools are meeting updated nutritional standards and 43 percent of schools are engaged in farm to school activities, including buying local products. However, to achieve those numbers, many schools have had to rely on costly workarounds due to inadequate or outdated kitchen equipment. For example, many school food service providers are manually chopping fruits and vegetables because mechanical choppers are unavailable, or are storing produce off-site or in temporary containers like milk crates and coolers. According to a recent report on school kitchen equipment needs from the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project (a collaboration between the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation), 88 percent of school districts need at least one additional piece of kitchen equipment and 55 percent need infrastructure upgrades to help them meet current lunch standards.
Schools are having a particularly hard time adding more and a greater variety of fruits and vegetables to their daily menus, often because they lack large-capacity food processors, knives and cutting boards, and sufficient cold storage space. Inadequate school kitchen equipment negatively affects farmers as well. According to the USDA Farm to School Team’s 2010 Summary Report, insufficient processing and storage capacity in schools often prevents them from purchasing local produce, which must be stored and prepared into uniform serving sizes on site.
The costs of required equipment vary widely, depending on the number, age, size, and type of kitchens school districts employ, with some requiring millions of dollars and others requiring none. The median cost of purchasing required equipment in Wisconsin, for example, is $39,000 per school, which is comparable to the national median of $37,000, whereas the median cost per school in Mississippi is $63,000. Altogether, the need far exceeds $25 million. Wisconsin alone requires an estimated $97.5 million worth of food service equipment, and Mississippi requires an estimated $69.7 million.
Still, USDA’s $25 million in funding for fiscal year 2014 is welcome news, and aligns with broader efforts to support schools as they improve the quality and nutritional value of their meals. USDA announced $5 million for Farm to School Grants in February 2014, $5.5 million for Team Nutrition Grants in March 2014, and awarded $5.6 million for school food service professional technical assistance and training in fiscal year 2013.
The kitchen equipment assistance grant funds will be disbursed proportionally to state agencies, who will competitively award the funds to local school districts. High-need schools where 50 percent or more of the enrolled students are eligible for free or reduced price meals will receive priority consideration for funding.
Congress is also considering legislation to improve school kitchens and ensure better nutrition for children. Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Susan Collins (R-ME) introduced bipartisan legislation on the issue in early April 2014, which would authorize grants and loan assistance for school equipment and infrastructure improvements and help food service personnel meet the updated nutrition standards. Furthermore, the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act (CNR), which sets the parameters for and funds most child nutrition programs, will be taken up and debated in 2015, drawing attention to school meals more broadly.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), in partnership with organizations such as NSAC member the National Farm to School Network, has also been involved in legislative efforts that promote healthier school meals and snacks, nutrition education, and other activities that can boost economic opportunities for local small and medium-sized farmers and rural communities. During the 2010 CNR, NSAC and its partners helped to establish funding for the USDA Farm to School Program. With the 2015 CNR on the horizon, NSAC will continue to work to strengthen programs that help local farmers, schools, and children throughout the country.
To learn more about the school kitchen equipment needs (including the type of equipment needed) in your state, check out: Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project. To learn more about the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act and NSAC’s role, please sign up to receive our updates and action alerts here.