School food is an immensely complex topic that depends on the collaboration of school administrators, local and national farmers, food suppliers, distributors, federal and state food regulators, and more. When schools had to close their doors last year, a spotlight was shined on the vital role school meals play for millions of children and families around the nation.
To break down this important topic, we are joined on The Decisions That Matter Podcast by Jillian Dy to discuss her work at FoodCorps as the Director of Supply Chain Engagement. FoodCorps' mission involves bringing together local communities to connect kids to healthy food in school and Jillian does a great job covering everything from high-level policy topics to the on-the-ground supply chain challenges involved in feeding and educating kids in school districts across the country.
Challenge #1: Mismatched supply and demand and removing school lunch stigma
Little known fact: school food operates on a separate budget than the rest of the school. While costs such as faculty and staff salaries, equipment, and maintenance come out of the school district budget, school food operates independently and in many ways as a private business.
Among other noteworthy differences, that means school food departments need to generate revenue. The more children that participate in school lunch, the more money the program makes. This money funds investments such as adding a salad bar, upgrading kitchen equipment, and investing in nutrition-focused school programs and activities.
Higher student participation is hindered by a variety of factors – dated perceptions of food quality, the long-standing stigma associated with school lunch and receiving food subsidies, and paperwork headaches are a few. Finding creative ways to increase this participation is key.
Challenge #2: Paralyzed by differing stakeholder opinions
Remember when we said there are a lot of stakeholders in the school food supply chain? School administrators, farmers, suppliers, distributors, regulators. And within each varying geography, sizes, buying power, experience, and political beliefs.
When it comes to creating real progress, all of these well-intentioned and often differing opinions can easily clash. Most frustratingly at the early, defining stages of any school food initiative. Jillian warns against getting caught up on foundational questions, such as:
What is healthy food?
How much should local food supply be prioritized?
What does ‘equity’ in food supply mean?
The polarization of school food is one of the reasons why organizations like FoodCorps exist. Coming to a common understanding on these questions requires incredible amounts of collaboration, knowledge sharing, and compromise. Breaking down decades-old silos will often be the first step to creating a unified approach to school food.
Challenge #3: Removing supplier barriers…while upholding necessary health regulations
When it comes to the supplier side of the school food supply chain – the farmers and food suppliers school districts purchase from – the challenges are not so different from their state government counterparts.
Small, local, and historically underutilized food suppliers face familiar barriers to entry: less name recognition and public sector experience than the big-name players; lack of knowledge of necessary qualifications and regulations; less scalability compared to national counterparts, etc.
And, familiar upsides. Purchasing locally grown school food invests taxpayer dollars back into the community by supporting a local business. It creates more local jobs. And not to mention, puts fresher food on cafeteria tables to boot.
But just as in traditional public procurement, there are rules and regulations in place for a very good reason. School food regulations require additional food labels and certifications than a consumer-facing food supplier would require. Of course, these regulations are critical to ensuring – at a huge scale – that children are eating safe and healthy food. But, these requirements are huge barriers to entry for small, local, and historically underutilized businesses from winning a contract with school districts.
The question then is, how can we put processes in place to help suppliers get the certifications they need to participate?
Hard Challenges, Huge Impact
School food supply chain is an incredibly complex topic for a very good reason: it affects the daily health and nutrition of children nationwide. If you are interested in hearing more in-depth conversation about each of these challenges along with other school food supply chain insights, check out the full podcast episode!
Other great resources, including how to learn more about FoodCorps, are shared in the show notes.