While nutritional standards for school meals are improved, the kitchens where those meals are prepared need quite a bit of TLC, according to a report released Wednesday by our friends at the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods (KSHF) Project.
Only one in 10 school districts nationwide has all of the kitchen equipment necessary to serve healthy foods. That makes it tougher for schools to serve meals that meet the stronger nutritional requirements for meals implemented in the 2012-13 school year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The report also includes suggestions to help schools operate more efficiently, including by working with local policymakers, parents, teachers, students and funders to identify and implement strategies for meeting equipment, infrastructure and training needs.
“Having the right tools could help schools more efficiently serve students nutritious, appealing meals that they enjoy,” said Jessica Donze Black, director of KSHF. “We identified strategies that can help schools across the country get the equipment and infrastructure needed to serve healthy foods.”
To conduct their research, KSHF ran a self-administered online survey of nearly 3,400 school food service directors or designees from across the country. In addition, KSHF convened food service directors, school administrators, industry representatives, nonprofit groups, foundations and financers in July 2013 to discuss how schools could find the resources they need to meet the new school meal standards.
School districts are most often in need of equipment to receive and store fruits and vegetables, including shelving and walk-in refrigerators, KSHF found. In the meantime, the districts who reported having inadequate equipment said they are “making do” with less-efficient processes or a workaround.
Only 42 percent of school food service directors said they have budgets to purchase equipment, and fewer than half of them expected to have enough money to buy everything they need.
The districts need an average $131,000 worth of equipment in order to serve healthy foods. But there’s a wide-range in the types of equipment they need, from smaller items such as $32 serving utensils to $1,941 large-capacity food processors. More than half of school districts need major infrastructure improvements such as electrical upgrades.
The report urges local, state and federal governments to make funds available for schools to upgrade their kitchen equipment. Congress has appropriated money for upgrades, and the USDA announced earlier this week the distribution of funds to help schools upgrade their equipment. Meanwhile, pending legislation in Congress would establish a loan and grant assistance program within USDA to help pay for necessary upgrades.
“The grants made available… by USDA are a great example of how to address schools’ needs,” Donze Black says. “It will require buy-in from schools, communities and the government to make sure that they have the right tools to serve nutritious meals efficiently and effectively, but it’s a goal worth achieving.”
KSHF also notes that both nonprofit and for-profit organizations can also play a role in helping schools acquire the equipment, as they “have an interest in improving children’s health, education, school infrastructure, and community wellness.”
Click here to read the full report, titled Serving Healthy School Meals: U.S. schools need updated kitchen equipment.