School nutrition directors and school food advocates call for robust investments in enhanced state meal reimbursements, kitchen infrastructure, and more freshly prepared California-grown school meals
June 7, 2022 – (Sacramento, CA) – With inflationary prices squeezing family and school nutrition budgets, ongoing supply chain disruptions, and federal child nutrition waivers set to expire in less than 30 days, California’s School Meals For All Coalition commends the Legislature and Governor for understanding the need for bold investments to build a stronger, more resilient school food economy. The coalition urges the passage of the final state budget this month that prioritizes local procurement, kitchen upgrades, and support for nutrition staff and programs.
“California’s joint budget agreement includes ripe investments in staff capacity, California procurement, and kitchen infrastructure to help schools and farmers get more fresh, local ingredients on our kids’ plates,” said Kat Taylor, co-founder of TomKat Ranch, which co-sponsored School Meals for All. “With Congress unable to extend federal waivers that gave schools flexibility and higher meal reimbursements, we urge the Governor and Legislature to commit to transformational change for healthier, California-grown school food.”
The Governor and Legislature are considering $2 billion of investments in school nutrition-related programs that will position California as a national model, advancing child well-being, championing California farmers, and continuing to prioritize racial equity in the farm-to-school system by incentivizing purchase from disadvantaged farmers. We support the following investments around school food transformation, drawing from both the Governor and Legislature.
“California is leading the way to connect students with free, nutritious meals and schools with local farms,” said Chris Helfrich, CEO of Stephen and Ayesha Curry’s Eat. Learn. Play. Foundation. “As we have experienced in our hometown of Oakland, these programs and investments are critical for struggling school districts and vital for hungry kids.”
In addition to funding for farm-to-school program expansion, the Legislature recommends the inclusion of a $100 million procurement grant for school districts to purchase healthy California-grown foods. Relatedly, an additional $39 million in funding to expand the California Farm to School Grant program will continue to prioritize California’s socially disadvantaged farmers and Ranchers (SDFR). The USDA defines SDFR as those belonging to groups that have been subject to racial or ethnic prejudice, including Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Hispanic or Latino, and Asian or Pacific Islander. For some USDA programs, the SDFR category also includes women.
“California leads the nation in the diversity of its farmers and ranchers so it’s encouraging to see incentives that will increase their access to capital and technical assistance,” says second-generation farmer Mark Tadros from Egypt, who works to source produce from BIPOC regional farmers for three school districts in the Coachella Valley region. “If we can make it easier for schools and local farmers to work together, we can satisfy kids, who are the real customers.”
In addition to supporting farmers, California is preparing to provide for its school districts as the federal waivers expire. Under the state’s augmented reimbursement proposal, an enhanced rate of 89.5 cents per meal will allow school nutrition departments to better maintain program revenues and support food service operations after federal waivers expire June 30. The maximum combined federal and state reimbursement would be $4.625 per meal, giving nutrition departments the support needed to procure better quality ingredients and support increased labor costs.
The state reimbursements would help make hourly wages for school food service staff more competitive against other food services jobs in the private sector as districts face ongoing labor shortages, according to the California School Nutrition Association. It would also help with acquiring new and necessary equipment needed for school food service and the preparation of better quality foods.
“Current federal reimbursements have helped to bridge the challenges but leave no room for other issues or improvements,” said Nancy Rostomily, Lodi Unified School District Director of Nutrition Services. “We cannot go back to the National School Lunch Program rates that have traditionally increased at 1% over the years and be expected to successfully run programs without having to pull from the general fund, which is funding targeted for the classrooms.”
In order to increase access to freshly prepared meals, schools also need kitchen infrastructure upgrades to help them better procure, store, distribute, and prepare food. This will require unique plans for each district as every school kitchen differs. While some districts have central kitchens, replete with Combi Ovens, food processors, and industrial dishwashers that make serving freshly-prepared meals easier, other schools must make do with heat and serve equipment. Many schools need an entire kitchen infrastructure overhaul due to historic underfunding for school infrastructure.
“Some of our equipment is 20 years old. We use ‘gum and tape’ to hold them together,” said Dan Cappello, Director of Nutritional Services in Desert Sands Unified School District. “We need upgrades, and we need industrial-sized vegetable washers. We currently wash thousands of pounds of produce by hand, which is extremely time-consuming for our limited staff.”
“We serve more than 7,500 meals a day,” said Erin Primer, Director of Food Services at San Luis Coastal Unified School District. “You would never walk into a restaurant that serves the same number of customers only to find they don’t have a dishwasher. Better equipment and the skilled labor to properly use it will ultimately lead to more program participation.”
As California serves as a model for other states to implement their own free school meal programs, Governor Newsom and the California Legislature must seize this movement to steer the nation’s largest free school meals program towards greater accessibility, quality, and equity. Now is the time to step up our commitment to the health and well-being of California’s children by supporting robust proposed investments in locally-sourced school meals, school kitchen infrastructure and equipment, and nutrition workers’ training.