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Rethinking School Lunches to Boost Health, Environment and Economic Equity

Growing up, Arlethia Brown never once ate in the school cafeteria.

Her mom, a single parent in Camden, N.J., didn’t apply for free lunches because she didn’t want outsiders to know her business, or her four children to realize they were poor. So, Ms. Brown walked home to eat lunch every day through high school. The food looked better than the prepackaged options in the cafeteria anyway, she thought.

She would never have guessed then that she would one day become Senior Director of School Nutrition for 30 schools in her hometown, bringing nurturing, creativity, and visible joy to the work of overseeing meals for 10,000 students in one of America’s most food-insecure cities.

Because of her personal experiences, she’s made it a priority to see that every student eats for free, no applications needed, and that produce grown locally and sustainably is included in tasty, nutritious menu options.

Her groundbreaking work at the Camden City School District is part of a pilot incentive program with The Common Market, a nonprofit distributor that unites schools with local growers to stimulate the economy, lift up sustainable farm practices and bring fresh, nutritious food to the lunchroom.

With support from The Rockefeller Foundation, The Common Market is creating a multi-year food procurement initiative to direct food purchasing dollars locally and equitably. The initiative will that provide opportunities for Black farmers and other underserved growers, while increasing access to healthy food in schools and hospitals.

The Foundation, which has been working since 2019 to help schools improve their procurement practices, is also supporting The Common Market and its partners to develop a new food equity initiative in Atlanta. Through demonstrating the success of these models, the goal is to change procurement practices not only in schools across the country, but eventually in other institutions and corporations too.

Arlethia Brown, Camden Senior Director of School Nutrition. (Photo Courtesy of Ms. Brown)

  • Shifting food purchasing dollars creates value beyond the school lunch tray. Prioritizing racial equity, environmental sustainability, and thriving local economies creates more resilient supply chains and shared prosperity for farmers, food workers, and small businesses.
    Noah Cohen-Cline
    Director of the Food Initiative, The Rockefeller Foundation

Serving Summer Lunch at Camden High School. (Photo Courtesy of Masha Hamilton)

Changing Camden One Meal at a Time

Separated from Philadelphia by the Delaware River, Camden is both an exciting and challenging city for piloting this work. Covering about 10 square miles and with a population of about 70,500, Camden was once a prosperous industrial city. But as factories closed, conditions declined. Now, one-third of city residents live in poverty.

With no full-service supermarkets, Camden has the lowest access to fresh, healthy food in New Jersey. It also has one of the highest violent crime rates in the country, creating hardship for many students. The high school graduation rate is 67 percent. Ms. Brown herself comes from this system.

Though they are underserved, Ms. Brown says, “the students are the best part of this job—knowing that you are supporting them, getting them a warm meal that they like and that is nutritious.”

She serves not just lunch, but breakfast (including grab-and-go meals for students who might be running late), dinner, an afterschool snack, and for elementary school students, a midday snack. She also has a Saturday brunch program inspired by her own Saturday brunches with her mother. “I dream of us being open seven days a week so kids can come in and get a Sunday meal and don’t have to worry if they don’t have something at home,” she says.

In absence of that, Ms. Brown puts a lot of focus on Fridays. “I don’t know what the kids will get over the weekend, so I don’t want Pizza Day; I want a good home-cooked meal,” she says.

“Try Day Friday,” School Gardens and Breakfast Salads

“It’s also ‘Try Day Friday,’ where we get them to taste something that might be new,” she says. For example, their chef recently made “asparagus fries” featuring local New Jersey asparagus—a vegetable option never before offered in the school food program’s history. They prepared it with parmesan cheese, garlic, and a little honey.

The Common Market refrigerated warehouse delivers local produce to Camden. (Photo Courtesy of Masha Hamilton)

Ms. Brown enrolled her schools in the Community Eligibility Provision, begun in 2010 to allow the nation’s highest poverty schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications. Doing all she does requires making a penny go far.

She says she learned young how to be thrifty, especially when she herself became a single mom as she was entering 11th grade. “I remember taking 50 dollars and stretching it for two weeks. Those budgeting skills still help me in this job,” says Ms. Brown, who worked in a bank and as a confidential secretary to support herself and her son right after high school, but then got both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.

Financial Incentives to Buy Produce Grown Locally and Sustainably

Even with her energy and resolve, however, she couldn’t do all she does for her schools without the incentives now facilitated by The Common Market. The nonprofit, its school partners and local advocates hope the state will eventually step in.

Eight states currently have publicly funded incentive programs. Here’s how they work: schools receive anywhere from an extra 6 cents to 25 cents per meal when a specified percentage is locally grown. It’s fresher and healthier than prepackaged food, while supporting the local economy.

When Tatiana Garcia Granados and Haile Johnston moved to Strawberry Mansion in 2003, it was considered one of Philadelphia’s roughest neighborhoods. “There was about a 25 percent vacancy rate, so we started cleaning up some of the lots and working with the neighborhood kids to plant flowers,” Johnston recalls.

The couple, both graduates of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, also recognized the area was largely a food desert, and that a lack of access to fresh nutritious food was contributing to community health challenges. So, flowers were quickly replaced by vegetables, and the couple helped kids set up fruit and vegetable stands.

“We realized our neighbors had a complete lack of agency over the kind and value of food coming into our community,” Johnston says. “We wanted to change that.”

That led to the 2008 founding of The Common Market, working to both bring healthy foods to underserved communities, and support and develop family farms.

“I have been a food lover all my life; I’ve had a lot of profound food experiences,” says Johnston, noting that his parents were both avid gardeners and his wife’s father was a farmer in Guatemala for a time.

“My dad also was aware of the agricultural abundance around Philadelphia, so when I was a kid, he took us to the countryside, and we filled every crevice of the car with pumpkins and set up a stand on Chestnut Hill to sell them. He did pretty well—or at least, better than covering his costs. We jokingly called him an entremanure.”

The Common Market’s 2021 annual report shows the nonprofit distributed 15 million healthy meals through 453,000 farm-fresh boxes in mid-Atlantic area, the Southeast and Texas, supporting 144 family farms and investing $11,245 in local economies through food purchases.

Some 50 percent of The Common Market’s suppliers are within 100 miles of their warehouses, and 90 percent are within 300 miles.

Since its founding in 2008, The Common Market has generated $110 million of direct investment into local food systems and supported over 30,000 acres of productive farmland while serving 10 major U.S. metropolitan areas.

As part of its pilot program in Camden and Bridgeton, a rural southern New Jersey district that feeds roughly 6,200 students, it has delivered more than 29,000 pounds of locally grown food, supplied by 17 New Jersey growers, including Desmond Hayes, who founded GeoGreens, an indoor hydroponics farm right outside Trenton, New Jersey—itself a food insecure area.

Hayes, who has Master’s Degrees in architecture, civil engineering and environmental science, was living in Asbury Park, N.J., when he wandered into a hydroponics store around the corner, bought some supplies and began experimenting in his apartment.

He was working in New York City, but his “hobby” was becoming his passion. “I sometimes missed the train while caring for the plants. I rushed back at night to see how they were doing. I kept the grow lights on all the time in my 200-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment, and began documenting everything—what was working, what wasn’t.”

In those early days, “a lot of plants died; it was trial and error. This wasn’t covered in school,” he says with a laugh. “Now I say my plants are on vacation all the time. Their every need is met.” He denies talking to his plants, but acknowledges, “I may yell at them if I’m out three or four days: ‘How we doing, guys? Everybody good?’”

Desmond Hayes caring for his hydroponic greens at GeoGreens. (Photo Courtesy of The Common Market)

Working to Create a Zero-Waste Farm

Hayes actually considered the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals when making the decision to jump fulltime to hydroponic farming. “I wanted to see how many of them I could pursue and make a difference toward,” he says. GeoGreens contributes to SDG 2,3,8,11 and 13. They contribute toward a smaller carbon footprint with their hyper-localized model, they help fight against hunger, their water is recycled—“the only water we lose is what the plants sweat off, or transpire, and what escapes in the indoor environment,” he says—and they use 100 percent recyclable packaging.

“Our mission is to become as close to a zero-waste farm as we can while providing healthier, more nutritious foods to food-insecure areas and minority communities,” Hayes says. He weaves other values into GeoGreens—for instance, partnering with Eden Autism in Princeton, N.J., to hire two part-time employees with autism.

He opened up in his current location in November 2021, growing leafy greens, microgreens and herbs in 2,000 square feet, and also making healthy shots and popsicles with microgreens and fresh fruits. His first two customers were The Common Market and an assisted living facility, but his customer base has grown. He is now looking to add 5,000 more square feet. His dream is three New Jersey locations—north, central, and south—so he can serve the Tri-State area.

The Common Market puts a premium on supporting Black growers like Hayes. Black farmers in the U.S. have declined over the last century, largely due to discriminatory policies and practices, and lack of legal protections.

Today, just 1.4 percent of farmers, representing less that 0.5 percent of total U.S. farm sales, identify as Black or mixed race, compared with about 14 percent 100 years ago.

Recognizing the importance of policymaking to create sustainable partnerships between all local growers and institutions, The Common Market supports educating federal, state and district policymakers and officials about both the wisdom and the practicality of improved procurement practices. But it still puts its work distributing locally grown produce at the heart of its mission.

“A lot can be done in just writing the contracts in the right way, and we want to help there also,” says Rachel Terry, the National Partnership Director. “But our contribution to policy really relies on being practitioners. We want to show that this can work.”

Co-founder Tatiana Garcia Granados in front of The Common Market’s delivery truck. (Photo Courtesy of Masha Hamilton)

In the last 14 years, they’ve gone a long way towards achieving that. “When we started talking about this, it was just about our neighborhood. That’s where our mind was,” says Tatiana Garcia Granados, Chief Operations Officer of The Common Market and, along with her husband, co-founder.

“But we realized it’s a bipartisan issue and a need that crosses different demographics,” says Granados. “My hope is that The Common Market’s success inspires the whole food system to transform. In ten years, everyone should be doing what we are doing now.”