Schools Need Better Kitchens. You Can Help.

A FoodCorps service member and cafeteria staffer working together in a school kitchen

A FoodCorps service member and cafeteria staffer working together in a school kitchen

For more than 70 years, the National School Lunch Program has empowered schools to serve meals to millions of kids across the country. But in some school kitchens, outdated ovens, inefficient refrigerators, and other ineffective equipment make it difficult to prepare and store healthy, fresh foods. Many districts don’t have the budget to upgrade their equipment, and those that do rarely have enough to cover everything they need.

Earlier this summer, we introduced you to the School Food Modernization Act, legislation that would help school districts update their kitchens with efficient, modern cooking and storage equipment. Let’s take a look at the state of school kitchens in the United States and how upgraded equipment can make a big difference.

The National School Lunch Program is 73 years old this year and the equipment in many of the program’s more than 95,000 schools is nearly as old. This year, I replaced two ovens that were from 1972 — they were in use for 47 years.” — Jeanne Reilly, director of School Nutrition for the Windham Raymond School Department

What’s missing in school kitchens?

In 2012, 88% of school districts lacked at least one piece of equipment necessary to meet school nutrition standards, according to a survey by the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project. And fewer than half of school food programs had the budget for new equipment.

To help solve this problem, Congress appropriated $35 million for USDA kitchen equipment grants in 2016 — adding to the millions it had already allocated in previous years. Thousands of schools were able to purchase much-needed equipment and upgrade kitchen infrastructures, making it easier to prepare healthy school meals.

The USDA grants made a big difference. One school upgraded its serving counter, installing serving wells that keep food at the proper temperatures and better lighting around the salad bar, resulting in students taking more fruits and vegetables. Another school purchased a larger refrigerator and warming oven, which increased the number of entrée options it could provide.

“Just one new appliance or serving station can have surprising impact on meal programs and students,” said Kenneth Hecht, coordinator of the University of California Nutrition Policy Institute, in a blog post. “Because of the USDA’s School Kitchen Grants, more students are choosing school meals and they are eating more fruits, vegetables and other healthy options.”

But many schools still need more support. The bipartisan School Food Modernization Act, introduced in June, would create a grant, loan guarantee, and technical assistance program to support school districts in buying the kitchen equipment they need. 

The impact of modern school kitchens

We know school kitchens need upgraded equipment to serve kids healthy, fresh meals. But what kind of a difference can equipment really make? A bigger one than you might think.  

When you get to this level of scratch cooking, it’s imperative that you start looking at ways in which technology and equipment can help you become more efficient.” — Chef Ann Cooper

Chef Ann Cooper, founder of the Chef Ann Foundation, wrote that in her school district, new automatic breading machines made it possible to cook from scratch. Her team used the machines to prepare oven-fried chicken — one of the most popular items on the menu, and a welcome change from frozen chicken nuggets. 

“Before I invested in three automatic breading machines, I had my staff doing it by hand,” Chef Ann wrote. “It would take 12 kitchen staff six hours each to accomplish this task, and as our most popular lunch item, we were serving it every other week. That’s 72 hours just to bread chicken! Now, it only takes 24 hours to operate the machines.”

Robust, modern school kitchens also make it easier for school nutrition services to train staff in scratch cooking with whole ingredients — a practice that brings more local ingredients into school kitchens. (Check out our previous blog post on why sourcing locally is a win-win-win for kids, farmers, and communities.)

What can I do to support modern school kitchens?

As lawmakers approach child nutrition reauthorization, or CNR, we’re monitoring a number of bills that impact school nutrition, including the School Food Modernization Act. Take a moment to contact your legislators and ask them to support the School Food Modernization Act — it only takes two clicks! 

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