May 27, 2022

Cooking school lunches from scratch can fix labor and supply issues

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The access to free meals that tens of millions of schoolchildren have through the Agriculture Department’s child nutrition programs is under threat. When federal pandemic waivers expire June 30, the majority of the nation’s schools will no longer feed all students free of charge, and school districts will receive far less money from the federal government — about $2.91 per meal instead of $4.56 — for those they do feed.

These policy changes will send child nutrition programs — which have been indispensable during the pandemic — spinning into turmoil if schools continue to be hammered by labor shortages, supply chain challenges and inflation. Some schools have already stopped providing the breakfasts, after-school snacks and suppers that children from low-income households rely on. Others have turned to more heat-and-serve meals and shelf-stable items that require less on-site labor, since job vacancies have reached crisis levels.

The twin problems of labor and supply shortages aren’t easy to fix, but one solution — cooking meals from scratch — can go a long way toward addressing both. Scratch cooking gives schools more flexibility to buy from local farms instead of relying solely on distributors that may not be able to fill their orders, and it converts part-time jobs into full-time positions that can be more satisfying and better paid. What’s more, after initial investment in infrastructure, scratch cooking is cost-effective. A 2020 study of California public schools found that nutrition departments with high levels of scratch cooking spent the same total percentage of their budgets on food and labor — 87 percent — as those that did little to no scratch cooking.

Since 2013, Minneapolis Public Schools has invested in scratch cooking infrastructure and built a robust farm-to-school supply chain that includes 15 partner farms, cooperatives and food hubs for the 2021-2022 school year. The district partners with farmers who grow specific items in the quantities the district requests — a process called forward contracting — which has kept the price of farm-to-school products stable in comparison with the pandemic price volatility of food that the district sources from large national producers.

Like other employers in the low-wage service and education sectors, school nutrition programs have long struggled to recruit and retain enough employees to fill hourly positions. The majority of the roughly 420,000 workers employed in K-12 nutrition programs are in part-time jobs without full benefits or union representation. An average hourly wage of $11 to $15 simply isn’t enough for employees to support themselves without working multiple jobs or receiving public assistance. As the labor union Unite Here, which represents K-12 cafeteria workers in multiple cities, puts it, “One job should be enough.” And it can be.

Districts that use a scratch-cooking model, dishing up menu items like turkey and wild rice meatloaf, Vietnamese noodle bowls, and beef tacos, support more full-time employees and higher-quality jobs. They are able to offer working conditions notoriously difficult to find in food service: predictable schedules, no evenings, no weekends, benefits, a sense of purpose — maybe even a union that allows them to exercise their collective power, as SEIU Local 284 workers in Minneapolis did this year when they successfully negotiated a contract that increases their wages and benefits.

Universal school lunches have enormous potential

According to a Biden administration task force, requiring schools to employ cafeteria workers full-time would minimize service interruptions caused by labor disputes, decrease job vacancies and increase union participation. This, along with a federally financed increase in wages and benefits, would ensure that one job is enough for the workers who feed the nation’s children.

When schools have adequate infrastructure and staffing, scratch cooking may even save money. Anneliese Tanner, former food-service director of the Austin Independent School District and current director of research and evaluation at the Chef Ann Foundation, found that scratch-prepared hummus cost 25 cents less per serving than a prepackaged cup, and scratch-made cheese enchiladas cost 14 cents less per serving than a prepackaged equivalent.

And as advocacy coalitions like ScratchWorks and social enterprises like Brigaid and Red Rabbit note, the benefits of scratch cooking go beyond price: It gives schools the power to modify recipes to maximize nutrients and remove “ingredients of concern” like high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors and artificial preservatives from the meals they serve.

Many schools, though, lack the necessary facilities and equipment for scratch cooking, because the federal government did not allocate any money for this purpose from 1981, when President Ronald Reagan cut school lunch funding, until the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Federal disinvestment in school food infrastructure hit low-income districts the hardest. The 2020 California study found that wealthier and majority-White districts do more scratch cooking than lower-income and majority-non-White districts. Wealthier districts have higher tax bases and more access to local funding and so are better able to pay for scratch cooking themselves.

California is addressing these inequities. The state has committed to providing free school meals for all students and has allocated $150 million to improve kitchen infrastructure and staff training. The California Comeback Plan further invests more than $127 million to “bolster more resilient and equitable food systems,” including $60 million designated for the California Farm to School Incubator Grant Program and $15 million to support food hubs and cooperatives.

At the federal level, members of Congress have introduced multiple bills that support scratch cooking and local food, including the bipartisan Scratch Cooked Meals for Students Act. And the Biden administration has taken steps to help schools withstand the acute challenges of the pandemic, adjusting meal reimbursement rates in January to help offset inflation, updating nutrition standards and allocating $1.5 billion in supply chain assistance, $200 million of which will support local sourcing and historically underserved producers like veterans and Black farmers.

This is not enough. To truly “build back better,” as the Biden administration would have it, the federal government must make a transformative investment in scratch-cooking infrastructure and jobs while continuing to feed all students for free.

Why banning ‘meal shaming’ isn’t enough

Shifting the nearly 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program to a scratch-cooking model could benefit the health and well-being of whole communities, not just children. During evenings, weekends and school breaks, when kitchens are not being used to prepare meals for students, this public infrastructure could be used to make healthy, low-cost meals for seniors and other community members who need food assistance. Such innovations took root in the first year of the pandemic, when many school districts reached out to feed adults in their communities. In New York City alone, about 400 schools were converted into food hubs that distributed millions of free grab-and-go meals.

Some may say the price of continuing the federal child nutrition waivers (estimated at more than $11 billion for the 2022-2023 school year), and of additional investment in labor and infrastructure, is too high. But the cost of inaction is higher. According to an analysis from the Rockefeller Foundation, the pre-pandemic school breakfast and lunch programs generated $21 billion a year in net value to society through health improvements and poverty reduction. This could be increased by an additional $10 billion annually, the foundation found, if school meal programs maximize participation, improve nutritional quality, and buy environmentally sustainable and locally sourced ingredients. Public investment at the federal and state levels is key to unlocking this potential.