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How More Nourishing, Sustainable School Meals Benefit Us All

School meals are the main source of nutrition for millions of children every day – and research has shown that healthy school meals can enhance student well-being and success while also supporting farmers and rural economies. That’s why we were encouraged to see the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) take an important step toward improving the rules that guide school meals, including:

  • enabling schools to source local products more easily; and
  • bringing nutrition standards up to date with the latest nutrition science.

Shifts in Food Sourcing Make a Stronger Economy

It’s particularly exciting that the proposal includes an update sought after by farmers, food businesses, and school nutrition directors: allowing schools to specify products that are locally produced. Currently, schools that want to target their food dollars to support farmers and food businesses in their region are prohibited from making this an explicit requirement in their contracts. The proposed rule change could be a big step toward helping schools purchase high-quality ingredients and foods that are more sustainably grown and equitably sourced.

Every school food dollar spent locally generates up to $2.16 in economic benefits. Yet on average, local food purchases represent under 20% of total school food expenditures, less than 10% when milk is removed, and an even smaller proportion goes to small and mid-sized farms and food businesses. Increasing procurement from local and regional producers and suppliers to 30% of all school food purchases would create nearly 20,000 new local jobs and nearly $1 billion in annual local wages, according to our True Cost of Food: School Meals Case Study, published in collaboration with the Center for Good Food Purchasing. Not to mention, shorter supply chains will help increase resilience against shocks and can help create the transparency we need in our food system to ensure that we’re getting the most public good out of every public dollar.

We know many schools want to source more local products but find the current rules to be cumbersome and confusing. Explicitly allowing “local” to be used as a bid specification for school meals would enable more schools to purchase regionally grown foods and use their food budgets to achieve greater social value rather than prioritizing only the lowest cost.

Importantly, local does not mean small-scale impact. Across the U.S., institutions like schools and hospitals spend $120 billion on food annually, which means how they spend food purchasing dollars can make a real impact on how food is grown and who benefits. The Rockefeller Foundation has invested more than $13 million in support of efforts to galvanize shifts in public and private dollars to create markets for more sustainable and locally sourced food. That includes support for the Good Food Purchasing Program — adopted by cities from Honolulu to Los Angeles to Denver to New York — and other approaches that leverage the collective market power of school food budgets to invest in rural economies, advance racial equity, and support sustainability on farms, in food businesses, and across communities. Learn more about some of our investments.

Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids

For many students, school meals provide the healthiest food they have access to each day. Studies show that investments in healthy school meals build a foundation that improves a child’s ability to learn along with their academic performance, while also building healthy eating habits that can reduce the likelihood of diet-related diseases. To ensure students are given their best possible shot to learn and thrive, school meals must be based on the latest nutrition science.

kids eating their lunch at a table
Kids eating their lunches at school.

Food served in school meal programs is regulated by federal guidelines, making it healthier than the average American diet. A 2020 study showed the school nutrition standards adopted in 2010 have already prevented 500,000 cases of childhood obesity among students from low-income families. While tremendous strides have been made, nutrition science continues to evolve, and the USDA’s proposed updates to school nutrition standards represent another step toward giving kids healthy meals that support growth, health, and well-being.

Analysis outlined in our True Cost of Food: School Meals Case Study showed that improving the dietary composition of meals — away from those high in sodium and added sugars, and toward those higher in whole grains, legumes, and vegetables — would help to improve diet-related conditions and also have environmental and climate benefits. Altogether, these shifts would yield an estimated $1.5 billion in additional societal benefits each year. School lunches of higher nutritional quality were also found to be associated with higher rates of participation in school lunch programs, a win-win for students.

Valuing School Meals for Their Worth

According to our research, the national investment of $18.7 billion in school meal programs each year generates nearly $40 billion in human health and economic benefits annually. That’s an incredible return on investment – for every dollar our country spends on school food, we receive more than two dollars back. We invite lawmakers and organizations across the food system to join us in exploring the power of school meals and taking their true societal benefits into account.

It’s time to double down on the success of school nutrition programs and make school meals even healthier, more sustainable, and accessible for all. With the right actions to improve nutrition, prioritize sustainable and equitable food purchasing, and expand school meals to as many students as possible, school meal programs can help advance a better food system for all.