For School Lunch, Kitchens as Important as Ingredients? | Civil Eats

In the Case of School Lunch, Kitchens Might Be as Important as Ingredients

Is Obama's proposed budget allocating $35 million toward updating school kitchens enough?

School Lunch Kitchen and Workers

Around the country, schools have been working to serve more nutritious meals, with less highly processed food and more fresh fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, many of those schools are also stuck with outdated kitchens—the kind best suited to opening cans and reheating frozen chicken nuggets.

But unlike the recent controversy over federal school food nutritional standards, which attracted significant media attention and a lot of highly-charged partisan debate, school kitchen equipment is often an afterthought — even though it’s just as vital.

After all, what good is a shipment of fresh, nutritious vegetables if a school lacks adequate refrigeration to store it, enough cutting boards and knives to prepare it, or the proper equipment to prepare healthy meals?

In recognition of this critical link, President Obama’s just-released fiscal 2017 budget proposal seeks $35 million from Congress for school kitchen equipment grants—an increase of $5 million over last year—to support the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act’s 2010 school meal overhaul.

Similarly, the Senate Agriculture Committee’s recently approved bipartisan Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill also provides for at least $30 million per year in kitchen equipment grants, as well proposing a new low-interest loan program for districts’ larger infrastructure needs.

A 2014 Pew Charitable Trusts report found that 88 percent of districts currently lack at least one piece of equipment needed to serve kids healthy meals, forcing many to engage “workarounds that are expensive, inefficient, and unsustainable.” And most lack much more than that. According to Pew, “more physical space” was the most commonly reported need. But that’s not where the list ended. Here are a few additional examples:

  • In Alabama, 41 percent percent of schools reported needing more sets of knives with cutting boards.
  • In California, 51 percent of schools reported needing walk-in refrigerators in order to safely and efficiently store large quantities of perishable foods and beverages.
  • In New York, 54 percent of schools said they needed industrial scales to weigh bulk ingredients.

Given these numbers, it’s not surprising that the school food community has welcomed the idea of additional funds. Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association (SNA), says the 55,000-member group of school nutrition workers was “pleased” to hear about the proposed increased funding for school kitchens.

She points to a recent SNA survey that revealed that many school districts have used the money they might have spent on new equipment to offset financial losses in their meal programs. “These grants will help support ongoing efforts by schools to invest in the necessary equipment to increase scratch-prepared recipes and serve more fresh produce,” Pratt-Heavner told Civil Eats.

But just how far will $30 or $35 million go to overhaul underequipped school kitchens? The short answer is: Not very far.

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

Forty-three percent of today’s public schools were built in the 1950s and 60s. And while the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Equipment Assistance Program was intended to keep school kitchens up-to-date, Congress failed to fund the program for three decades, starting in the 1980s.

The effect of that long period of neglect became manifest in 2009-10, when Congress finally did provide $100 million for kitchen infrastructure as part of the federal stimulus package and another $25 million in the fiscal 2010 budget: Grant requests from school districts came to five times that amount, or $630 million. And, of course, that figure only takes into account the districts that applied for funds. The Pew survey actually pegs total school kitchen infrastructure and equipment needs at $5 billion nationwide.

So while no one would criticize the Obama administration’s well-meaning $35 million appropriation—it’s more than any budget has provided since the 2009 stimulus hand-out—the sum is a drop in the bucket. Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project (a joint initiative of Pew and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation), calls recent appropriations “critical to addressing the equipment challenges in schools,” but she acknowledges that they fall short. “Truly resolving the current situation will require investment and innovation at the federal, state, and local level,” she adds.

Absent sufficient federal funding, where can struggling districts turn to finance needed kitchen upgrades? Black suggests they maximize their revenue by employing strategies such as “expanding meal service to include breakfast and afterschool programs” as well as “offering catering to increase facility utilization,” and then invest the additional funds in kitchen equipment. There’s also the possibility of seeking outside philanthropy; some districts have successfully partnered with health-minded or anti-hunger nonprofits willing to foot the bill for salad bars or other equipment likely to improve student nutrition.

But districts in need of larger kitchen upgrades, such as creating more storage space or replacing outdated plumbing, may well be interested in the low-cost loan program proposed in the pending Senate child nutrition bill. Modeled on the USDA’s existing Community Facilities Direct Loan & Grant Program, the program would allow districts to finance these costly improvements at a very low interest rate to be paid back over a long period of time. And the risk to the federal government would be low, as few districts would be likely to default on such loans.

In practice, though, it might not be easy to get districts to take advantage of the program. At a 2013 Kids’ Safe and Healthful Food Project workshop on school kitchen equipment, some school nutrition directors complained that “many districts may not understand how to incorporate equipment needs into capital budget plans. Others reported a lack of collaboration with food service staff when school districts budget for and coordinate capital expenses.”

Thank you for being a loyal reader.

We rely on you. Become a member today to read unlimited stories.

It remains to be seen whether Obama’s $35 million appropriation will survive the 2017 budget negotiations and whether the final Child Nutrition Reauthorization law will in fact contain the Senate’s proposed low-interest loan program. But one thing is clear, school districts have been charged with serving healthier food to 31 million kids every day, yet many of them lack—and may continue to lack—the equipment they really need to do the job.


Bettina Elias Siegel is a nationally recognized writer and commentator on issues relating to children and food. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Houston Chronicle, and other publications. She's the author of Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World and for 12 years covered the world of kid food and school nutrition in The Lunch Tray. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

  1. Cheryl Bicknell
    In addition to the lack of equipment, the staff in the kitchens are not trained to cook. So it's a double edged sword. Both the kitchen equipment and the retraining of staff has cost implications for schools. Schools went this direction to cut food budgets. We are a product of our own reduction in appropriating funds for children's education and their brains.
  2. Great piece. And wonderful to see such thorough and clear-eyed reporting on something besides the content of the nutrition regulations in CNR 2016! That said, it's worth mentioning that scratch cooking, possible only with adequate kitchen equipment, is far and away the the most effective way to reduce sodium in school meals.
  3. Chef Rachel Larensen
    This article enrages me with its obtuse, haphazard "good ole boy" push for a low interest loan. If monies are not available from our greedy Congress to allocate to its own children, why would a loan to fill their pockets be a better solution.
    Another bone of contention is supposing the low wage, part time staff are educated enough to use any new equipment an uneducated, in the workings of a kitchen, district allocation committee would think an appropriate purchase.
    We need to encourage or assign Culinary professionals to assist in this endeavor in order to make every penny count in purchasing and even more so in training!

More from

School Food


A drone photograph of a corn field in Madison County, Ohio, with a grain silo in the background. (Photo credit: Hal Bergman, Getty Images)

Republican Plans for Ag Policy May Bring Big Changes to Farm Country

Project 2025 and the Republican Study Committee budget both propose major changes to how the government supports commodity farmers. They might face strong opposition from ag groups and their farm constituents.


Senator Cory Booker Says FDA Proposal Could Worsen Antibiotic Resistance

A farmworker feeds cows in a barn.

In Brazil, a Powerful Law Protects Biodiversity and Blocks Corporate Piracy

An overhead shot of the Atlantic Forest in Brazil. (Photo credit: FG Trade, Getty Images)

Bringing Back Local Milk, Ice Cream, and Cheese

Foggy Bottoms Boys co-owner Cody Nicholson-Stratton pictured with his son. (Photo courtesy of Foggy Bottoms Boys)

Can Cooking in Community Slow Dementia and Diabetes?