Food for thought: flexible farm to school procurement policies can increase access to fresh, healthy school meals.

Author:Tonti, Lauren
 
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Contents Introduction I. Overview of the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program A. What are the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs? B. How Do Schools Use Government Funds to Purchase School Meals? C. What Roles do Food Service Management Companies Play in School Meal Programs? II. FSMC Fraud Highlights the Need for Schools' Increased Procurement Flexibility III. The Farm to School Solution A. What is Farm to School? B. What are the Benefits of Farm to School Programming? C. Is Farm to School Affordable? D. How does Farm to School Address Health and Safety? E. Farm to School in Action: Examples of what Farm to School can Uniquely Achieve IV. Legislating for Procurement Flexibility Can Help Bring the Farm to Students' Forks . A. How Does a Public School District Select a Vendor and Purchase Products? B. Strategy 1: Make Farm to School Suppliers More Competitive in the Formal Bidding Process C. Strategy 2: Increase State and Local Small-Purchase Thresholds for Informal Bidding D. Strategy 3: Encourage the USDA Promulgate a Micro-purchase Carve Out for Schools Participating in Farm to School Programs Conclusion Introduction

The essence of the traditional American food fight has fundamentally changed, escalating beyond the walls of junior high school cafeterias and into the halls of legislatures. Instead of lobbing mashed potatoes and mystery meat, lawmakers and advocates are trading barbs about the food cafeterias serve and where it comes from. (1)

The scope of child-nutrition programs is significant, and many of those programs use schools as nuclei for food distribution. (2) In 2014, at least 33.26 million American schoolchildren depended on food provided by school meal programs for the majority of their daily nutrition. (3) In some low-income school districts, children may receive up to three meals per day, plus a snack, from school. (4) These numbers signify that schools themselves have also fundamentally transformed from conglomerations of desks and classrooms into trusted sources of sustenance, especially for students of color. Free and reduced-price school-meal recipients are primarily black and Latino students from lower socioeconomic classes. (5) Given the vast scope of the school-meal programs that serve so many dependent students, the quality and nutritional value of the food served to them is paramount.

Four key considerations highlight the need for healthy school meals. First, childhood obesity has reached epidemic levels. (6) According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ("CDC"), "[c]hildhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years." (7) Unhealthy school meals in childhood portend an adulthood riddled with serious health complications. Obesity can lead to an onslaught of health problems later in life, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain types of cancer; each of these preventable health problems cost Americans billions of dollars in healthcare fees annually. (8)

Second, healthier school meals have the power to fight societal health disparities and overarching inequalities. (9) Obesity risks are particularly high for low-income and minority youth nationwide. (10) Many of these youths live in food deserts, (11) "urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food" where fast food and convenience stores are predominant food sources. (12) By providing access to fresh, unprocessed, and nutritious foods, school districts can act as distribution hubs that help fight the prevalence of food deserts.

Third, schools currently contribute to the vast amount of American food waste, an amount that could fill a 90,000-seat football stadium. (13) Not only do healthier school meals promote improved health outcomes for schoolchildren, but they can also decrease food waste. Students who enjoy their lunches eat more of them, particularly when schools offer fresh produce. (14) Consequently, these students are less likely to dump the majority of their meals in the trash. (15)

Finally, the majority of Americans simply want healthy school lunches. (16) Ninety-one percent of parents think that schools should serve fruits or vegetables with each meal and the overwhelming majority support stricter school nutrition standards. (17)

With such high stakes, reforms must happen swiftly and effectively to ensure that high-need students have access to proper nutrition. Accounting for the above considerations, the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA") promulgated a rule that encourages schools to procure local, unprocessed foods to serve in their meal programs. (18) Consequently, local and state legislatures have increasingly begun to adopt farm-to-school laws that both help schools access healthy foods and connect small local producers to new markets. (19) However, other regulatory barriers that restrict school procurement practices may still inhibit schools' access to fresh, unprocessed ingredients that comprise healthy meals. (20) Public-bidding requirements complicate easy access to available products. Because schools must accept a vendor's lowest bid, private food-service management companies ("FSMCs"), which consistently price their standardized products below small local producers' wares, often win school meal contracts over local producers. (21) Yet, FSMCs are not always best for schools, especially when local farm-to-school vendors offer a myriad of benefits that FSMCs do not. (22)

This Note contends that by increasing school flexibility and control over vendor awards, farm-to-school procurement legislation can help schools access fresh, healthy foods for school meal programs. Part I briefly overviews the evolution and operations of the National School Lunch Program ("NSLP") and School Breakfast Program ("SBP"). Part II highlights FSMC fraud and irresponsibility that elucidates the need for schools' increased procurement flexibility. Part III explains the merits of farm-to-school legislation as a solution to inflexibility. Part IV demonstrates how enacting farm-to-school laws can increase school flexibility and control over school meals and identifies three key strategies lawmakers can employ to help schools access local, responsible food vendors. First, lawmakers can employ legislative devices to promote small, local vendors in the formal bidding process. Second, state and local governments can raise small--purchase thresholds, allowing schools to purchase more fresh, nutritious food through informal purchasing. Finally, lawmakers should advocate a micro-purchase carve-out for farm--to--school programs, which would allow schools to deliver fresh, local produce to students more frequently.

  1. Overview of the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program

    1. What are the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs?

      The passage of the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act in 1946 affirmed the United States government's national-security interest in feeding the nation's malnourished children. (23) Amended numerous times since its enactment, the National School Lunch Act establishes the NSLP, which provides free or low-cost meals to students who meet eligibility requirements. (24) The government affirmed the NSLP's importance in the Child Nutrition Act of 1966. (25) The Child Nutrition Act sought to expand government assistance in meeting the nutritional, developmental, and educational needs of children as a way to promote children's health and well-being, as well as to increase domestic agricultural-product consumption. (26) Piloted in 1966, the SBP became a national child nutrition program in 1975. (27) Nearly identical to the NSLP, the SBP provides free or low-cost breakfasts to students who meet eligibility requirements "in recognition of the demonstrated relationship between food and good nutrition and the capacity of children to develop and learn." (28) While critical in nutrition delivery to children, these school meal programs are expensive. In 2015, the federal government paid a combined total of almost seventeen billion dollars for the NSLP and SBP. (29)

      As a reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, the Healthy Hungry Free Kids Act of 2010 ("HHFKA") governs what foods schools can distribute through school meal programs. (30) Due to increased concern about childhood obesity, HHFKA heightened nutritional standards for food served in schools, improved the quality of food served, increased the number of eligible children, and provided for school-wide income eligibility. (31) HHFKA, designed to cater to children's dietary needs, aims to provide high-nutrient, low-calorie meals by requiring school menus to feature fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat milk, while limiting the availability of foods with high levels of sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat. (32)

    2. How Do Schools Use Government Funds to Purchase School Meals?

      Schools that choose to participate in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs receive cash subsidies in exchange for serving meals that meet federal nutrition guidelines--bolstered by HHFKA--and offering free or reduced-price lunches and snacks to low-income students. (33) The federal government reimburses states based on the number of meals schools serve at an annually calculated reimbursement rate. (34) For instance, in the 2015-2016 academic year, most schools could receive a maximum reimbursement of $3.24 per meal for serving free and reduced-price lunches. (35) Severe-need schools serving school breakfasts could receive a maximum of $1.99, whereas non-severe-need schools receive $1.66. (36)

      The Food and Nutrition Service ("FNS"), along with state agencies, coordinates the NSLP. (37) FNS is a USDA agency that administers food and nutrition programs. (38) State agencies are responsible for school-meal administration at the state level. The...

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