School lunches are big business. As Korsha Wilson reported for YES! Magazine in November 2018, school districts nationwide spend a total of approximately three billion dollars annually on food contracts, most of which are with corporate food suppliers. As Beth Hopping, cofounder of the Food Insight Group, told YES! Magazine, “The wealth in the food system is concentrated in the hands of a few and has been extracted at the expense of the earth and people.” Now, however, organizations such as the Farm to School Network and Wholesome Wave are working to make the food systems that supply schools more equitable.
New programs not only connect school children with local farms, they also create jobs in the community, and keep money in the community to support on-campus gardens and farm-fresh meals. A study in Georgia found that for every dollar the program spent, two dollars stayed in the state, instead of leaving to be invested in a large food company, YES! Magazine reported.
To succeed, however, organizations must adhere to local, state, and federal policies that often serve to benefit large, private food companies. “There’s a lot of underground scaffolding that keeps our food systems the way that they are,” Hopping told YES! Magazine. The goal is to rebuild that system “in a way that works for communities.”
To address these challenges, some organizations have created regional farm-to-institution “hubs.” These hubs employ trained personnel to clean and process local farm produce, meat, and dairy, which then go to schools, hospitals, and universities. These hubs also increase the community’s number of skilled employees.
In 2018 Trump signed the US farm bill, legislation that sets policies for the agricultural industry. New provisions in the bill should make it easier for schools to work with local farms and buy their food locally. The hope is that these provisions will create equity for farms owned by women and people of color, and provide more nourishing food to underserved communities.
In September 2018, a grassroots alliance of ranchers, fishers, farmworkers, students, and environmental advocates, organized as the Community Coalition for Real Meals, called on the nation’s three largest food service management companies—Aramark, Compass Group, and Sodexo—to shift from exclusive relationships with Big Food corporations to greater investments in real food that supports producers, communities, and the environment, Friends of the Earth reported. “Even though it flies below the radar screen, the cafeteria industry perpetuates major inequities in the world. But people are waking up,” said Anim Steel, director of Real Food Challenge. “These big cafeteria corporations are going to have to make some fundamental changes if they want to satisfy this generation of students who are connecting the dots between their foodservice providers and problems in society.”
As of May 2019, the corporate media appear to have entirely ignored the story of how communities across the United States are working to make school food systems more equitable.
Korsha Wilson, “What School Lunches Have to Do with Fixing Wealth Inequality,” YES! Magazine, November 13, 2018, https://www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/what-school-lunches-have-to-do-with-fixing-wealth-inequality-20181113.
“Nationwide Campaign Calls on Aramark, Compass Group, and Sodexo to Reform Unjust Business Practices, Invest in Real Food,” Friends of the Earth, September 4, 2018, https://foe.org/news/nationwide-campaign-calls-aramark-compass-group-sodexo-reform-unjust-business-practices-invest-real-food/.
Lindsay Oberst, “Why School Lunches in America are Unhealthy and 10 Ways You Can Take Action to Improve Them,” Food Revolution Network, August 29, 2018, https://foodrevolution.org/blog/school-lunch-in-america/.
Student Researcher: Diana Mayorga (City College of San Francisco)
Faculty Evaluator: Jennifer Levinson (City College of San Francisco)