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Unpacking What It Will Really Take to Improve School Lunch

Updated: Nov 22, 2022

Image shows two different photos of school lunches: the one on the left shows a chocolate milk, a dragon fruit drink, and a prepacked meal; the one on the right shows a bag of apple slices, milk, cherry tomatoes and a cellophane wrapped cheese pizza.

School food systems change is not hopeless, but it will take time and commitment.

Improving school meals has the potential to advance educational and food justice issues in our schools. For that reason, we were happy to join the Lowell Community Organization (LCO) for a special presentation with Professor Jennifer Gaddis (UW-Madison), and Joshua Perkins, the Director for MMSD’s Food Services.

Dr. Gaddis is a recognized expert in the National School Lunch Program and promotes changes to school meals that can ensure better nutrition for children, a better labor environment for food service workers, and stronger local food systems. (Dr. Gaddis also talked with us back in September 2020 about how participation in the pandemic meal box program could advance food justice.) Josh Perkins became the new Food Service Director this summer and comes from a long career working as a chef and in other food service operations. He is also a MMSD parent.

Gaddis and Perkins opened the night with some background information on the school breakfast and lunch programs, and then focused on three key areas for school food systems change, including potential action steps for parent/caregiver groups. (To see a copy of their slides, you can access them here.)

To help break down the complexities of this issue, we’re sharing some takeaways and action steps, for our families, our school communities, and for the whole district.

Key Takeaways:

1) Every time we engage in discussions about school food, we’re struck by how complicated the system is. Labor shortages, supply chain issues, the lack of kitchens in our schools, the profit motive of food producers, the requirement for school food programs to fund themselves (the reason à la carte lines become an important moneymaker), the rigid meal planning requirements, and perceptions of what children will and will not eat. Every decision is made at the intersection of these forces, and every decision ripples back through them.

2) There are a lot of parents and caregivers who don’t rely on these meals but want to participate, both because it can make one aspect of life with kids easier, but also to support the school food programs. But they’ve encountered frustrations when they participate, ranging from concerns about food quality to a mismatch between menus posted online and what is actually served (some of our kids have been known to get upset when this happens).

3) However, this is not a system that you can change simply by critiquing it from the outside (if that works with any system?). Participation numbers are critical for the money flowing into the program and for any changes that can then be made. More participation = more federal reimbursement dollars = more money for better food, better jobs, and better infrastructure. If your kid is at a “CEP” (Community Eligibility Provision) school where all kids can eat the meals for free – check slide 14 in the deck – then you have a big opportunity now to help more reimbursement dollars flow into the MMSD food program. Kids can pick three of the five offerings to go with a sandwich from home (e.g., a fruit, vegetable, and milk) and this counts for a reimbursable meal.

4) Supporting and improving school food is in fact anti-racist action. This supports better nutrition and quality food for kids who rely on it (disproportionately Black and Brown), better jobs for school food workers (disproportionately Black and Brown women), and supports white and privileged kids in gaining experience with public goods that we all share and support. This also disrupts the ways in which the free-reduced-paid payment system sorts kids in the cafeteria by race and class (and the ideas kids internalize because of that).

5) School food systems change is not hopeless, but this will take time and commitment. We can start small and build upon these actions together. There are examples we can learn from in districts such as Minneapolis and Austin, where a “collective impact campaign” encouraged families to participate in greater numbers to financially support the changes they wanted to see (e.g., “If a child who hasn’t participated eats school lunch one time per week, we can supply organic milk”). Latine families in Colorado have also won big battles recently to shift their district food service programs to serve culturally-relevant foods.

On that note, here are some action steps coming out of this event:

Actions in your family:

  • Double check your family’s eligibility for the free and reduced-price meal program, apply if you think you might be eligible (you can apply anytime of year), and encourage other families to do so too. Family incomes change year to year, so re-checking and applying can help make sure eligible kids get this benefit (and sometimes other benefits like free bus passes) and help MMSD Food Services get accurate numbers.

  • Contribute to a “culture of participation” at your school by increasing your kids’ participation to 2-3 meals a week. If it’s appropriate, nurture your kids’ resilience and Plan B skills when the online menu doesn’t match what's served.

  • Say “hi” to the school food service workers, get to know these critical members of the school community, and let them know you appreciate their work.

Actions in your school community:

  • Review the action steps included in the slides within your parent-teacher group (PTO, PTA, etc.) to determine which two-four steps you can commit to this year. We’re especially interested in the Real School Food Challenge and other kinds of food-focused community-building events.

  • Explore how your parent-teacher group can utilize your funds and/or access your school’s foundation funds to support improved infrastructure for food service in your building.

Actions across the district:

  • Build a community of parents, caregivers, staff, and community members who want to make school food systems change! Together we can encourage the school board to pass a Healthy School Meals for All resolution like the Sun Prairie school district did, build our own collective impact campaign, expand free meals, and more! Email if you’re interested!

We can’t wait until the day when school food staff are well-compensated and a nutritious and delicious school meal is waiting for every single kid in our community!

Families for Justice is a network of people working to dismantle white supremacy in Dane County and beyond through multi-generational community organizing and direct action. Learn more here.

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