School Lunches Get a Local Boost from New USDA Standards | Civil Eats

New School Meal Standards Could Put More Local Food on Students’ Lunch Trays

In this week’s Field Report, USDA’s nutrition standards aim to support farmers, a paraquat ban advances in California, food safety updates, and more.

A student at Ashford Elementary School in Houston fills up on local food in his school lunch. (USDA Photo by Lance Cheung)

USDA Photo by Lance Cheung

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) finalized long-anticipated changes to the nutrition standards that regulate school meals. Among the changes that attracted the most attention were the first-ever limits on added sugar and a scaled-down plan to reduce salt.

But another small tweak has big implications for the increasing number of schools working to get more fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats produced by nearby farmers onto students’ trays. Starting July 1, when districts put out a call for an unprocessed or minimally processed food—whether it’s tomatoes, taco meat, or tuna—they’ll be able to specify that they’d like it to be “locally grown, locally raised, or locally caught.”

“We’re . . . freeing up schools to continue to look for ways in which they can partner with producers and with local and regional food systems,” agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack said during a press conference last week, “so that we create additional market opportunities for farmers and ranchers in the area, but also create a better connection between those who produce the food and those who consume it.”

Two days later, Vilsack landed in Michigan, where his travel schedule attempted to trace that connection, with a first stop at a Detroit middle school followed by a visit to Williamston to talk about helping farmers access “new and better markets.”

Karen Spangler, the policy director for the National Farm to School Network, said the change has long been a priority for the group because it often hears how the shift will simplify the process for school nutrition directors while also making it possible for more farmers to get involved in the first place. In addition to funding institutes and expanding farm-to-school efforts to early childcare centers, she sees as one piece of the USDA’s current focus on “integrating farm-to-school and local purchasing to a degree that hasn’t been seen before,” she said.

From the start of the Biden administration, Vilsack announced a priority on nutrition security and building regional markets for farmers, and farm-to-school efforts happened to sit right at the nexus. Since the release of the latest Agricultural Census in February showed small- and mid-size farms continue to disappear as consolidation in agriculture accelerates, Vilsack has been beating the drum of saving smaller farms by supporting markets they can sell into even more intensely. In addition to the shift to local purchasing, the nutrition standards also strengthen the “Buy America” provision already in place for school meals.

But forging a stronger connection between fields and cafeterias goes back to 2010, when Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act championed by Michelle Obama. It was the first Child Nutrition Reauthorization to push nutrition to the forefront of school meal programs, and it included the first federal farm-to-school grants. Since then, the federal government has supported the efforts in additional ways, alongside numerous state incentives and grant programs as well as work done by nonprofit organizations. During the 2018–19 school year, about 77 percent of school food authorities (districts or individual schools) reported serving some local food, spending a total of $1.26 billion.

However, that number is still a small sliver of total school meal spending, and buying local can be more complicated for districts and schools than just making up a funding gap. In addition to delivery, packaging, and labor challenges, school food procurement involves a complicated bid process with many rules attached. That’s where this change comes in.

Spangler explained that right now, schools can list a “geographic preference” as one factor to be evaluated alongside others such as price, volume, and other criteria. For example, if a New York district wants to buy apples grown in-state today, they would have to evaluate bids from in-state orchards alongside bids from out-of-state distributors, many of which are likely to come in with a much lower price. “It discourages local producers from participating in the process because they can be drastically undercut,” Spangler said.

With this change, if the district is confident that plenty of in-state orchards have enough Macintosh and Granny Smiths to satisfy their students’ appetites, it could specify up-front that it only wants bids from in-state orchards.

Alongside the National Farm to School Network, groups including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, National Farmers Union, and FoodCorps have been pushing for the change for years. In its summary of the new standards, USDA officials said the agency received close to 400 comments on the proposed change.

“Commentors noted that expanding the geographic preference option to allow local as a specification will broaden opportunities for CNP [Child Nutrition Program] operators to purchase directly from local farmers, reinforce local food systems, and ease procurement challenges for operators interested in sourcing food from local producers,” they wrote.

Previously, Representative Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) attempted to go the Congressional route to make it happen, introducing the Kids Eat Local Act multiple times with bipartisan support. But the bill never went anywhere because the overall Child Nutrition Reauthorization process is now nine years overdue.

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Pingree celebrated the USDA for moving forward with the change in the meantime, and she plans to continue to reintroduce the bill so that it will eventually be set in law and therefore be more likely to stick. “Our children deserve healthy, nutritious school meals that are made with locally-sourced ingredients—not highly processed foods,” she said in a press release applauding the agency.

At Morgan Hill Unified School District in California, Michael Jochner said he’s ready to make that happen. Jochner has been working to improve meal quality by forging relationships with organic farmers in his area and growing his own lettuces using hydroponic shipping container systems for several years.

“As a district going out to bid across all food items for next school year, we’re very excited to have the flexibility to use ‘local’ as a bid specification,” he told Civil Eats. “We feel this will allow us to prioritize our local farmers, ranchers, and fisherman, and in turn help the local economy.”

Read More:
Inside New York’s Pursuit to Bring Local Food Into More Schools
Farm-to-School Programs Are Finally Making Inroads on Capitol Hill
California Farm-to-School Efforts Get a Big Influx of Cash
Pandemic Disruptions Created an Opportunity for Organic School Meals in California

Pesticide Ban Moves Forward. California legislators advanced a state bill proposed to ban the herbicide paraquat, sending it to another committee for consideration. Paraquat has been linked to Parkinson’s disease and is banned in dozens of other countries due to its health risks, including the United Kingdom, throughout the European Union, and in China. Over the past few months, the Environmental Working Group has been supporting the campaign to ban paraquat in California, releasing reports that show it is sprayed disproportionately in counties home to low-income communities of color and that the top users in the state include the Wonderful Company, which sprays it to produce pomegranates, pistachios, and almonds. The legislation comes at a time when the pesticide industry is fighting on several fronts to prevent states from passing laws that regulate farm chemicals.

Read More:
Paraquat, the Deadliest Chemical in American Agriculture, Goes on Trial
Inside Bayer’s State-by-State Efforts to Stop Pesticide Lawsuits

Confronting Poultry Problems. As avian influenza continues to spread in dairy cattle herds in nine states, the USDA announced it will now require mandatory reporting of infections in cattle and testing before moving cattle to other states. Some states, meanwhile, had already closed their borders to incoming cattle. And on Thursday, Colombia became the first country to restrict beef imports from the U.S. based on the situation. While beef cattle have not tested positive for the virus to date, retired dairy cows are generally processed into beef at the end of their lives.

Prior to the crossover into cattle, the virus had been circulating in poultry since early 2022 and is still is, primarily affecting egg-laying hens and turkeys. One dairy worker, whose only symptoms were conjunctivitis, remains the only reported infection in humans, and while particles of the virus have been found in milk, officials from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say the milk is still safe to drink, since pasteurization kills the virus.

Meanwhile, the FDA also finalized a food safety rule that will allow the agency to enforce limits on Salmonella in some chicken products for the first time. The rule only applies to “frozen, breaded, and stuffed” chicken products, but in those products, if salmonella is found to exceed the limit, the products will be considered adulterated and will not be able to be sold. It’s a major change for the agency and is one piece of a larger plan to reduce illnesses from the common bacteria.

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Read More:
A Deadly Bird Flu Resurfaces
Will New Standards for Salmonella in Chicken Cut Down on Food Poisoning?

Farmworker Rights. On Friday, the Department of Labor finalized new regulations intended to increase protections for workers employed on farms through the H-2A guestworker program. Under the new rules, workers have more tools to advocate for their rights and obtain legal assistance, foreign recruiters are required to provide new documentation to increase transparency, and new procedures are in place to kick out farms that break the rules.

“With these new rules, the power of the federal government has sided with farm workers—both those who are born here and those from other countries—who for too long have been exploited, silenced, displaced, or harmed by the H-2A program,” United Farm Workers (UFW) President Teresa Romero said in a press release.

The news came days after the UFW Foundation released a new documentary video series showcasing the impacts of climate change on farmworkers. As the effects of climate change worsen, workers in the field increasingly face and lack adequate protection from hazards including dangerous heat, flooding, and wildfire smoke.

Read More:
The H-2A Program Has Ballooned in Size; Both Farmers and Workers Want it Fixed
As the Climate Emergency Grows, Farmworkers Lack Protection from Deadly Heat
Farmworkers Are on the Frontlines of Climate Change. Can New Laws Protect Them?

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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  1. James
    Government procurement rules are the obstacle. Do you think ShopRite writes specifications, contract requirements and then goes out for bids to buy produce? Or do they have Buyers that are authorized to make purchasing decisions based on price, quality, availability and customer preferences?

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