The Local Plates, Global Minds team, based at the Friedman School, has spent nearly three years working with the Boston Public School community to assess if changes in food procurement improve the nutritional quality and environmental sustainability of menus, and to learn about the trials and successes of increasing local food procurement for school lunches.
Here, members of the research team, Rachel Kinney and Alexandra Stern, provide an overview of the project's context, challenges and outcomes.
How are school meal programs rebounding after COVID-19?
Since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the local food movement has expanded in schools across the United States through the Farm to School program. Farm to School activities focus on increasing access to and education about local foods. By 2019, three in four public schools participated in some Farm to School programming. Local food procurement may provide economic, health, environmental, and educational benefits. Schools are incentivized to increase local food for those reasons, and because students, parents, and other community members such as local farmers are increasingly interested in bringing local food to schools.
In March of 2020, COVID-19 put a pause on many of the progressive efforts undertaken by schools to improve school meals. With school re-openings this fall, and school meal programs coming back in full force, school districts can once again pursue efforts to increase local food procurement and engage in Farm to School programing.
Boston Public Schools and Local Plates, Global Minds
Boston Public Schools (BPS) began their efforts to increase local food procurement in 2019 with support from the Kendall Foundation. This was part of BPS Food and Nutrition Services’ (FNS) larger effort to increase healthy, sustainable, and ethically-sourced food in school meals under the Good Food Purchasing Program, which the City of Boston adopted in 2019.
In conjunction with the Kendall Foundation, BPS received a grant from The Danone Institute North America: One Planet, One Health Initiative to promote sustainable food systems and help assess the potential nutritional and environmental benefits of changes to school lunch menus. This research was managed by the Local Plates, Global Minds team which was founded and led by students at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.
As the project has progressed, the team has completed a qualitative case study analysis of stakeholders’ experiences with BPS efforts to increase local food, focusing on challenges faced and success achieved. This case study is publicly available on the Local Plates, Global Minds website.
Challenges and Successes with Local Food Procurement
Boston Public Schools faced a steep learning curve when they first began increasing local food procurement. BPS includes 125 schools with 57,000 students spread across nearly 50 square miles, complicating food distribution. BPS is also a Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) school, which means they provide free meals to every student within a tight budget. When BPS began their local food work, most of their schools did not have full kitchens and relied on non-local prepared, frozen meals, limiting the reach of the local food program (though BPS has rapidly built kitchens through their My Way Café model and plans to have from-scratch meals available at all schools soon). Finally, Boston’s location provides access to New England farms, orchards, dairies, and fisheries, however many products are only available seasonally.
These characteristics created specific challenges as BPS moved forward with increasing local food procurement. BPS worked through challenges related to defining ‘local food’, determining baseline data on local food, creating a data tracking system, finding local food producers, and establishing training and marketing programs. While different school districts would likely face different specific challenges when implementing local food procurement, they may have something to learn from the way in which BPS approached these challenges.
Key ingredients to success included:
- A culture that prioritizes persistence, enthusiasm, creativity, and flexibility
- Clear and regular communication, and a focus on teamwork
- A commitment to implementing change, with exceptional stakeholders taking on key roles
- An organized but nimble structure for implementing processes
- The ability to carefully plan within an existing budget
- A supportive, flexible, and sustainable funding mechanism
Their hard work paid off, and by 2020- just a year after BPS began this work- local food was six times more prevalent in school meals. However, in March of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic led BPS to make major shifts in food service. With schools closed, BPS provided grab-and-go meals which did not lend themselves as well to local food. Additionally, farmers were more hesitant to sell to BPS. While farmers continued bidding for BPS contracts, some farmers bid less partially because of the increased consumer interest in pick-your-own and farm shares and skyrocketing needs of food banks. In addition, the harvest season was difficult because many farmworkers were not able to travel to Massachusetts. Returning to school in person has been a relief to FNS staff as they can now continue to enhance their Farm to School programming.
For more information on the experiences of Boston Public Schools in their pursuit to increase local food procurement, visit the Local Plates, Global Minds website to read the report.
By Rachel Kinney, graduate student at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition in Food and Nutrition Programs and Policy; and Alexandra Stern, doctoral candidate at the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy
Research funded by the Danone Institute North America is helping Boston Public Schools assess their local food procurement initiatives.
All images courtesy of Boston Public Schools.