Editor’s note: Have you had a hard time keeping up with all changes on the school lunch front these last few years? If so, you’re not alone. We asked Lunch Tray blogger Bettina Elias Siegel to give us an update on the state of the tray.

In late 2010, Congress voted to overhaul school meals. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (“HHFKA”) was championed by First Lady Michelle Obama and generally lauded by public health experts, anti-hunger groups, and food policy advocates as landmark legislation that would get America’s kids on the right track. By adding more whole grains, more fruits and vegetables, and simultaneously lowering sodium and capping overall calories on school lunch trays, the law promised much-needed change. Read more

I am named after my father’s mother, Delta Zenobia Barlow, who was born in the Delta region of Mississippi. When I was about seven years old, we went to visit my father’s relatives, for the first time in my memory, on a plantation in Barlow, Mississippi. I have a few faint memories of that journey: deep, rich, red dirt, a big white house, scattered housing occupied by sharecroppers, and a ramshackle building with a hand-lettered sign that read “The Barlow Store.” The whole plantation scene was strange and wondrous and I was trying my best to make sense of what I was seeing.

But something happened in that store that made an impression on me: an exchange between the shopkeeper and a sharecropper, as my uncle stood silently nearby, that revealed to me in an instant that the price charged to the sharecropper for the goods in the store, advanced against the value of his crop at the end of harvest, was exorbitant, and that the whole exchange, the whole system if you will, was profoundly unfair and exploitive. I can remember a sense of revulsion, of shame, like a body blow — and I remember flushing all the way to my tingling scalp, as my uncle, supposedly an upstanding, church-going, state senator, credentialed the transaction through his silent presence.

The insight that began in that experience, and has been nurtured and reinforced in myriads ways since, is that every intersection in the food system — from planting, growing, harvesting, transporting, processing, packaging and selling to cooking and serving and how we dispose of or recycle waste — is a critical juncture with opportunities to be more creative, wise, and compassionate. Read more

Last Thursday, New York City announced what could be far-reaching guidelines on city food sourcing. The administration has created a plan to promote spending on sustainable local and regional food, with a focus on food procurement from New York State suppliers, to encourage consumption of fresh, seasonal food and to bolster local economies. Only a handful of regional governments have passed similar plans, including San Francisco (San Francisco, why must you always beat us with your progressive city-wide policies?) and Toronto, although many local food policy councils have recommended similar initiatives.

NYC is second only to the U.S. military in institutional food spending. The city spends billions of dollars on food–for schools, city hospitals, prisons and hundreds of other government agencies. Ultimately, this spending equals amazing purchasing power and the ability to positively impact the way food is grown, processed and distributed in New York State. Read more

The meeting was held in San Francisco earlier this week at the offices of SPUR, a nonprofit created to promote good planning and good government. The focus of the discussion: an ambitious plan to overhaul Oakland Unified School District‘s inadequate and antiquated school food service. But the driving force behind what could be a model program for re-imagining school lunch in large school districts around the nation is a Berkeley-based nonprofit that has quietly been rethinking school lunch for many years.

No, not that nonprofit. The Center for Ecoliteracy recently released a detailed feasibility study that, if implemented, would amount to a massive makeover for the OUSD school food program. It includes recommendations for a newly outfitted, green central commissary with a 1.5-acre edible farm in West Oakland, refurbished existing kitchens, and the development of 14 school-based community kitchens dotted throughout the school district, which serves 38,000 students at 101 schools, 70 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The community kitchens are envisaged as places where budding edible entrepreneurs and local organizations with a food focus could work, for a fee, during after-school hours. Read more

Andrea Northup grew up with cows in her backyard. But it wasn’t until she visited France, and caught a glimpse of how a whole country can revolve around a robust food culture, that she found her calling.

Northup went on to launch the D.C. Farm to School Network, a nonprofit dedicated to providing healthier school food in 200 public schools and 90 charter schools in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2008. Since then, she’s been on a mission to transform school lunch menus one piece of fresh, locally grown produce at a time. And Northup has her hands full: The first orange food most D.C. kids can think of isn’t carrots, she says, it’s Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

Her greatest accomplishment to date: playing a principal role in the passage and implementation of the landmark Healthy Schools Act of 2010, which makes D.C. one of the first jurisdictions in the country to provide financial incentives to schools that serve local food and offer nutrition education in the classroom.

Northup, 25, was recently honored with a Natural Resources Defense Council Growing Green Award in the Young Food Leader category. Read more

In response to nationwide concern among parents and school service providers about ‘pink slime’ being purchased by the national school lunch program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last Thursday that next year it will give school districts the ability to choose whether they will serve the ammoniated beef product.

The USDA said that while it believes all products it buys for the school lunch program, including Lean Finely Textured Beef, are “safe and nutritious” it would respond to customer demand to give schools additional options, so they can opt out of purchasing LFTB if they wish. Read more

New York City was among the earliest of the urban school districts to implement a consistent school lunch program in the United States. More than 50 years prior to its formal integration into city schools, New York City’s Children’s Aid Society began a school lunch program in 1853. These and other scattered volunteer and non-profit efforts were taken up nationwide by municipal school boards and integrated into the larger efforts to address the growing nutritional needs of America’s urban schoolchildren.

As a federally funded school food program evolved from its inception in the first half of the 20th century to become a permanent fixture in the educational landscape across the country, the NYC school food program became a leading influence in the country’s experiments, failures, and successes in school food service. School and city officials sorted through the wrong ingredients for school lunches and exposed the detrimental effects of decreased funding for school lunch programs. Read more

I never imagined myself cooking for kids. I spent most of my first three decades as a chef not knowing or caring what kids ate, and not really wanting to feed them. In fact, as a restaurant chef, my worst nightmare was the host coming into the kitchen on a Saturday night, saying, “Chef, there’s a screaming kid on table 19. What do I do?”

My response: “Tell them to leave. Why did they bring kids here on a Saturday night, anyway?”

What a difference a decade makes. Today all of my work surrounds feeding kids healthy food, teaching them how to eat well, and working nationally to assure that all kids have access to delicious, nutritious food in school every single day. Read more

New school food standards proposed last week by the Obama administration could nearly double the amount of fruits and vegetables that more than 32 million kids eat every day. If these standards come into force, they could set American children on a healthier eating track that could last a lifetime. The proposed rule, issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the newly-passed Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, could also save billions of dollars in future health care costs.

Putting this plan into action seems like a no-brainer, but its expense, which USDA estimates at  almost $7 billion over five years, is a major stumbling block. Nearly half of that cost would go to put more fresh produce on school breakfast and lunch menus.

As we see it, $7 billion is a bargain when you consider the price of doing nothing.    Read more