Can local food procurement in schools change the nutritional quality and environmental impacts of lunch menus?
Over the last two decades Americans have been eating an increasing number of meals away from home. While current events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic seem to contrast this trend, the role of foods-away-from home (FAFH), particularly those consumed at or provided by public institutions, have shown to contribute significantly to the daily food intake of millions across the country.
In 2017, FAFH surpassed food-at-home expenditures by $122.3 billion. According to an analysis of the ERS Food Expenditure Series data, at least 19% of FAFH expenditures originated at large institutions such as schools, hospitals, hotels, and prisons. Together, these statistics highlight the role of FAFH, and public institutions in particular,on the overall food consumption trends in the United States.
When institutions set progressive procurement standards, they set a course to influence the entire food system—for instance, requiring suppliers to treat workers fairly, observe nutritional guidelines, and source food whenever possible from local farmers provides an opportunity to address a variety of issues that affect consumers and producers.
The role of school meals has recently been discussed in light of rising cases of child food insecurity. In March of 2020, school closures made headlines as concerns of child hunger rose at the possibility of impacting at least 30 million students around the country which depend on the National School Lunch Program for the highest proportion of their daily food intake. In the face of a catastrophic disturbance such as the COVID-19 pandemic, it is relevant to discuss efforts that were already underway and understand how their contributions may be leveraged for lasting progress in addressing challenges of our food system. One such effort has been in place since 2018 in Boston Public Schools.
Boston Public School Local Initiative—Better: Bite by Bite
Boston Public Schools (BPS) provides free lunch to 54,000 students across 125 schools every day. The BPS Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) team follow the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act guidelines and strive to provide nutritious meals made with local ingredients. Aware of their potential to shape the food system, BPS FNSis striving to make their menu more healthful and environmentally sustainable by participating in several initiatives.
One such initiative, supported by the Kendall Foundation, focuses on expanding purchases from farms or manufacturers operating in New England (CT, MA, ME, NH, VT, RI). By investing in local businesses, BPS hopes that local companies will provide well-paying jobs and workforce development in low-income neighborhoods while producing nutritious and environmentally sustainable products for students.
Although these investments have the potential to shift millions of dollars into a more equitable and sustainable food system, there is little empirical evidence to show the effects of purchasing local products. Local procurement has been theorized to enhance economic development, lower environmental impacts, and improve nutritional outcomes, yet the pathways that lead to these outcomes remain to be identified. Unfortunately, limited resources make it difficult for BPS to understand the impacts of increasing local food procurement by themselves.
Sustainable Food System Research
In April 2019, the Danone Institute North America began the One Planet One Health Initiative to foster transdisciplinary, community-based work to promote sustainable food systems. As part of the initiative, a team from Boston, spearheaded by students at the Tufts Friedman School proposed research which would bring together researchers from different institutions, administrators in the Boston Public School district, and local food producers and manufacturers. The proposed project aimed to research sustainable food systems by exploring the implications of procuring local foods for school districts.
Over the last 18 months, this team has been estimating the nutrient density and global warming potential of local products compared to items currently on the BPS menu. By assessing the possible nutritional and environmental benefits of including local options on school menus, this research is aiding BPS in selecting and promoting the most nutritious and environmentally conscious menu items for students in their schools. As the project comes to completion, the team hopes to communicate findings and methods to key sectors such as the scientific community, institutional food purchasing networks, and school districts to inform food systems initiatives across North America. Research findings are publicly available at the Tufts team website.
Procuring Local Food for School Lunch in the Face of the COVID-19 Pandemic
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools are unable to function with normal lunch programming. Instead, they have designated pick-up sites for lunch distribution. The pandemic has also interrupted innovative projects in food sourcing and production that many school districts have been working on since the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act instituted higher standards for meal quality and a greater focus on local sourcing.
Before the pandemic, Boston Public Schools was working tirelessly to produce more scratch cooked meals, provide more fresh vegetables, and source more local ingredients. While the pandemic has put some local sourcing on hold, and for some time students were primarily receiving pre-packaged meals from the food service provider Revolution Foods, the interest in this impact still remains. Researchers are sharing the results with Boston Public Schools and creating a replicable methodology so that other school districts can apply the same tools. With the results and tools, this research will support Boston Public School and other school districts as they transition back to normal functioning after the pandemic.
When the nation went into lockdown in March of 2020, all of the FAFH trends reversed. Americans consumed most of their meals at home for the first time in decades. If persistent, this new trend could yield meaningful gains. In reality, however, FAFH trends are likely to continue their course and maintain their center place in the diet of millions of individuals. Efforts to improve the nutritional and environmental impacts of institutional foods remain necessary and, arguably, merit heightened attention now that the shortcomings of our current food system have been widely exposed.
By Nayla Bezares and Alexandra Stern
Research funded by the Danone Institute North America is helping Boston Public Schools assess the environmental and nutritional impacts of their local food procurement initiatives. The research is a collaboration between students at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.