Organic Trade Association, school districts push for healthy organic in the cafeteria

Bertrand Weber often notes that he oversees the biggest restaurant franchise in Minneapolis--70 locations throughout the city serving over 40,000 meals a day to a diverse clientele with wide-ranging tastes and lots of influence.  

As Director of Culinary and Wellness Services for the Minneapolis Public School District, Weber is responsible for the feeding of some 34,000 students in 70 schools. He’s transformed the district’s  school meal program into one of the healthiest, most innovative – and most organic – in the country, not hesitating to leverage the purchasing power of his big franchise to score fresh, high-quality food for his schools, and while doing so, help local sustainable organic farmers and rural economies.

“We have a very aggressive farm-to-school program, and the farmers we work with are either certified organic or sustainable,” said Weber. “One of the most beautiful things about this program is that as a school district, you can offer the farmers the opportunity to purchase a whole field without them having to market that field or go to farmers’ markets.”

He points to the local free-range turkey farmer with a huge market for his turkey breasts, but no demand for the dark meat. The school district partnered with him, bought all the dark meat and turned it into turkey hot dogs, turkey burgers, turkey meatloaf, and turkey chili. A win for the farmer, a win for the school district and a win for the kids. Or the farmer whose kale was damaged from hail, and lost his restaurant customers. Weber’s team bought the whole crop, made it into salad and called it “holy kale.” And the conventional carrot farmer who transitioned to organic to secure a contract with the school district, and is now selling 25,000 pounds of certified organic carrots a year to the schools.

Across the country, foodservice directors at school districts large and small have been quietly upgrading their breakfasts and lunches to include more healthy, locally sourced organic food even as they’ve had to pivot to grab-and-go meal boxes for online students during the pandemic, work within tight budgets, and adjust to an ever-changing environment.  

Building off a good idea

The Organic Trade Association wants to bolster those efforts, and has identified integrating organic into federal nutrition and procurement programs as one of its top ten priorities for the Biden Administration. The association is tackling the issue on two fronts – calling for the support of the Organic Food Pilot Program in the reauthorization of the School Nutrition Act, and urging an increase in access to organic food in the Women, Infants and Children Program.

“Our belief is that organic food should be accessible to all,” said Laura Batcha, Executive Director and CEO of the Organic Trade Association. “We originally proposed the Organic Food Pilot Program in 2010, and $10 million was authorized for it in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.  That authorization was never funded, however, and we’re now asking Congress to again support this program. We can build off of a good idea. The political environment has changed since 2010, and this initiative could be expanded to be more impactful.”

Under the program, school food authorities could explore opportunities to build relationships with local organic companies, farms and food providers to make organic foods available to schoolkids, without driving up costs. The pilot program would model best practices in bringing fresh, nutritious, organic foods to schools within the confines of the existing school food cost structure. The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service would award competitive grants for training, supporting operations, planning, developing partnerships, and implementing programs that increase access to organic foods in schools.

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which revamped the school meal programs and brought about vast improvements to school breakfasts and lunches, also mandated that USDA establish the Farm to School Program to help implement programs that improve access to local foods in eligible schools. Through its Farm to School Grant Program, which began in 2013, USDA has awarded over $52 million to support 719 projects in 47,000 schools across the country to help connect school cafeterias to locally grown food. It’s estimated that over 40 percent of America’s schools have made farm-to-school a regular part of their food services.

While the Farm to School Program can be credited with helping to get more fresh organic food into school cafeterias, it doesn’t officially put any emphasis on organic. A USDA spokesperson said the agency doesn’t currently collect data on how organic food is integrated into the Farm to School Program more broadly, but that there are “at least four projects” awarded for fiscal year 2020 that were “focused on providing organic produce, educating kids on organic farming, or establishing partners to help supply organic produce.”

“The focus of Farm to School is on promoting locally sourced foods. There is always a possibility that the local foods are organic, but it is not a requirement of the program. We do encourage schools to work with their local vendors, and schools do have the option to specify a preference for local organic foods in their solicitations for the grants,” said the spokesperson.

“There’s real obvious compatibility with our goal to integrate more organic into school meals and with the Farm to School Program, but some commodities like milk don’t fit in so well, and the program doesn’t prioritize organic. There is compatibility, but it doesn’t take care of it completely,” said Batcha.

“The federal government is heavily involved in procurement, and the USDA in food procurement,” said Megan Debates, Director of Legislative Affairs for the Organic Trade Association. “The new administration wants their federal procurement plan to support climate friendly markets, and organic is one way to do that. Organic is already supporting climate friendly agriculture, and integrating more organic would allow USDA to act quickly on adopting a climate friendly food procurement program.”

Cooking up five billion lunches for 30 million customers

The USDA manages 15 different nutrition assistance programs, the biggest the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which provides financial assistance to millions of low-income families to help buy food. The Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC) is designed for low-income pregnant women, breastfeeding women and children under the age of five at nutritional risk, and provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education.

Child nutrition programs are also a huge part of USDA’s nutrition assistance programs, with the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program the biggest and most important school meal programs. In a normal, pandemic-free environment, the nation’s public schools serve up to 5 billion lunches and over 2 billion breakfasts every year. Every school day, nearly 100,000 schools feed lunch to almost 30 million students, and most of those school cafeterias start early, also serving breakfasts to almost 15 million kids. More than a third of the kids eating lunch get free or reduced-price lunches, and over three quarters of the breakfasts are free or reduced price.

When COVID-19 forced schools to close in mid-March 2020, school nutrition professionals quickly adapted their programs to ensure hungry students continued access to school meals. The meals don’t look the same: they’re in boxes or bags now with sometimes up to a week’s worth of breakfasts, lunches and snacks, more raw food items and foods that have to be heated up at home, and recipes and cooking instructions included. And they’re being distributed in a number of ways: grab-and-go meals at pick-up sites, direct delivery to student homes, and utilizing school bus routes to distribute meals throughout neighborhoods. USDA also authorized that school meals be free to all students during this time.

With over 1 in 5 children in the United States living in a food-insecure household, school meals – and especially the National School Lunch Program -- play a critical role in the healthy development and long-term health and educational outcomes, and are a crucial source of food for at-risk students. For all of our school-age children, school meals have been found to be as critical to learning as textbooks and teachers. Research shows that nutrition throughout the day contributes to student success in and out of the classroom, and that school meal programs are important in preventing obesity and supporting overall student health and academic achievement by improving children’s diets and combatting hunger.

The National School Lunch Program was established in 1946 to help decrease surplus farm commodities and address child malnourishment and hunger. It was shaped by progressive movements that inspired the concept of a school meal program that was safe, healthy, and accessible to all students. The 1970s and 1980s were a tough time for school meals, as USDA reduced school meal funding, particularly funds related to kitchen equipment and upgrades. These cuts forced many schools to replace scratch cooking, full kitchen facilities, and publicly run food programs with privatized food service, heat-and-serve kitchens and even fast-food vendors. More industrial-style processed and pre-packaged convenience foods in schools meant a big drop in the quality of the school meal.

But an alarming increase in obesity and other chronic health issues in our children -- and disproportionately in children of ethnic minority groups and lower-income households -- coupled with an increasing public outcry for greater access to clean, chemical-free food (think organic) began to open the eyes of the public to what was happening in school cafeterias. Nutrition activists called attention to the foods that many of our kids were eating in school (remember pink slime?) and spearheaded campaigns to stop questionable practices. A powerful First Lady, Michelle Obama adopted child nutrition as her cause and used her political clout to help make the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act a reality. School foodservice professionals all over the country, along with private non-profits and nutrition groups, took a closer look at what our kids were eating and began to make the shift back from heavily processed foods.

Putting real food back in school meals

“There are more and more school foodservice professionals who are increasingly passionate about advancing nutrition and health equity for children ASAP,” says Nora LaTorre, CEO of Eat REAL, a non-profit dedicated to increasing children's access to real, healthful foods through school meal programs. Eat REAL has developed a certification program with both nutrition and sustainability standards, and works with school food service providers to source local and healthy foods, limit processed foods, reduce sugar, and focus on scratch cooking. The group works in schools because of the huge change potential -- public schools in America serve more meals than any single fast-food chain. 

“Increasing organic food availability in the federal school breakfast and lunch program is a powerful way to increase access to food that’s healthier for our children and our planet,” said LaTorre. “We know it’s possible for school districts to add more organic items even with their budget constraints, and even more possible with additional government funding and grants.”

Participation in Eat REAL’s core certification program saw a huge jump as the 2019/2020 school year began, growing by 355 percent to 237 schools. The onslaught of the pandemic caused the organization to shift its priorities to meet the unexpected challenges, and it set up a network of 2,067 schools in 85 districts stretching from California to Massachusetts to which it provided public health guidance, reusable masks and real food donations. Despite the pandemic, LaTorre says the desire for better school meals has remained intact: “We are seeing a massive rise in individuals who want to improve the program and who believe in food equity. The pandemic set things back a little but we’re headed in the right direction.” 

The National Farm to School Network (NFSN), founded in 2007, is an information, advocacy and networking hub for communities working to bring local food sourcing, school gardens and food and agriculture education into schools and early care and education settings. In 2010, NFSN-- in partnership with other advocacy organizations--successfully advocated for the creation of USDA’s Farm to School Grant Program. NFSN works with school districts all over the country to connect them with local and often organic farmers.

“The values that National Farm to School Network advocates for in school meals are closely aligned with the values of the organic movement-- environmental justice and shifting our food system towards more equitable and sustainable uses of soil and water...a food system that is respectful and prioritizes community health, farmer livelihoods, worker safety and animal welfare. These are values that many in our communities share, and they should be the bedrock of all federal food and nutrition programs,” said Karen Spangler, Policy Director for NFSN. 

In a 2019 fact sheet on “Organics in Farm to School,” NFSN outlined specific strategies for schools to successfully integrate organic in their meal programs. Among these were buying organic products in bulk, developing relationships with local organic farmers to get the best price, getting the kids and the community involved in supporting organic, and taking time to do the research on local farmers and the availability of organic products. 

“Integrating organic purchases and products in farm-to-school initiatives allows children to see the benefits for growing and eating organic products first-hand. It can also provide children the nutritionally sound foods they need to thrive,” says the NFSN.

Political, public momentum

The COVID-19 pandemic and our school’s valiant efforts to get meals to kids, along with a new administration, have created a heightened awareness of the critical role of school meals and of healthy food, that is building momentum for strong nutritional legislation.   

“COVID has really reminded everyone in the starkest terms of the role that schools play in keeping kids fed, and the education around food. COVID has also showed the vulnerability in a centralized source for food and more interest in local sourcing,” notes Batcha.

Food activist Bettina Elias Siegel, whose advocacy for healthier school lunch programs has helped bring about significant improvements on the school lunch tray, hopes that COVID will drive more changes: “I would love to see a growing role for organic foods. The benefits would extend not just to organic farmers, but also to the environment, our climate, farmworker and animal welfare, and, of course, our children’s health. I hope that our experience with this pandemic will encourage a greater investment in federal nutrition programs across the board. This should be a real wake-up call to expand people’s access to nutritious food, as well as meaningful nutrition and cooking education.”

A new Congress is expected to reactivate stalled nutrition bills, including reauthorization of the School Nutrition Act, which hasn’t been updated since the 2010 Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act. New Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow has made strengthening nutrition programs and reauthorizing the child nutrition bill a priority. The organic pilot program would likely be included in that reauthorization.

“We see more support across the board – both politically and on the private side – to get our pilot program funded and off the ground,” said Batcha. “Access and equity around nutrition and food are becoming more important. The Organic Trade Association has an active Child Nutrition Task Force, and we’ll engage our members to work with Congress to reauthorize the School Nutrition Act, and will engage with USDA to see how it can include more organic in a climate friendly food procurement program.”

“There needs to be policy research done on the barriers to getting organic more integrated into school lunch programs and WIC. We’ll be working with USDA and university partners to do that research,” added Batcha.

In the meantime, school foodservice professionals like Bertrand Weber in Minneapolis will continue to do their part.

“Schools can be, should be and are part of making changes,” said Weber. “We have an opportunity right now to take this time to develop programming and start developing resources for what a new normal will look like after we emerge out of COVID. Bringing more whole foods into the school system has been a very important focus, and will continue to be. Organic has an important role in our meals.” //


Maggie McNeil is Director of Media Relations for the Organic Trade Association.