Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) is in the process of becoming the second school district in the nation to fully revamp its school food program. No longer will the food served in Boulder Valley school cafeterias acquire intimidating nicknames like “Mystery Meatloaf.” The mission of the new School Food Project, where I interned this summer, is to source all food locally and regionally when possible, and to prepare all food fresh every day. In the long term, Boulder Valley schools hope to build school gardens and incorporate garden curriculum into science and health classes. This exciting new episode in food system reform attempts to address many problems in our current food system at their roots: by teaching young kids healthy behaviors and giving them reasons to care about the provenance and biography of their foods, BVSD hopes to grow a generation of conscientious eaters.
Food system reform that begins in school cafeterias exists at the intersection of a growing number of interrelated problems and, if successful, has the potential to kill many metaphorical birds with one stone. Healthful food in school cafeterias might just be the long-sought response to growing obesity and diabetes epidemics. School districts represent vast purchasing power, enough to keep struggling sustainable farmers afloat and to support local economies, simultaneously minimizing the environmental degradation resulting from industrial agriculture. And school food reform might be an answer to the contemporary criticism of the “sustainable food movement”: that it is elitist and out of reach for low-income consumers. The school cafeteria can function as a great equalizer: with federal support for the Free and Reduced School Meal Program, low-income students receive federal subsidies to buy cafeteria meals, making healthy, environmentally sustainable food within reach of all students in the school system.
But the transition to a new school food system, as I learned at BVSD this summer, is not so easy. Cafeteria assistants need to be re-trained to cook and not just reheat school lunches. School kitchens, most of which have no production capacity, need to be remodeled. Sanitation standards are strict (for good reason) making this restructuring even more challenging. But the biggest problem is that the system must pay for itself. Boulder Valley hopes to absorb some of the increased costs with increased sales and economies of scale—with good, healthful food served in school cafeterias the program administrators anticipate that more parents will opt in to the school cafeteria program as opposed to preparing their own lunches for their children.
But the biggest compromise the program has to make in order to balance the budget is to accept some USDA commodity foods. “Commodity”, as it is called, is excess food the USDA purchases from farmers as a form of support. In a convenient transaction for the government, Commodity is purchased from the farmers and delivered to public schools at no expense to the school. Sounds great, except that most of the food is highly processed, transported thousands of miles, and sacrifices nutritional value for a large environmental footprint. In order to incorporate the expense of more healthy, seasonal and local produce, BVSD often fills in its menus with Commodity foods at the “center of the plate”: the ground beef in the tacos, the pepperonis on the pizza, the turkey in the deli sandwiches. This unfortunate but necessary trade off limits the success of the School Food Project in implementing its goals and accomplishing its mission.
It is easy to argue that BVSD school meals are healthier and more environmentally sound under the new School Food Project scheme, but when the USDA Commodity program makes public schools the garbage disposal of an unsustainable federal subsidy program for unsustainable farmers, the hopeful silver bullet of school food reform is derailed, and public school students take the brunt of the loss.