These policy changes will send child nutrition programs — vital infrastructure that has been indispensable during the pandemic — spinning into turmoil if schools continue to be hammered by labor shortages, supply chain challenges and inflation. Some schools have already stopped providing the breakfasts, after-school snacks and suppers that children from low-income households rely on. Others have turned to more heat-and-serve meals and shelf-stable items that require less on-site labor, since job vacancies have reached crisis levels.
The twin problems of labor and supply chain shortages aren’t easy to fix, but one solution — investment in cooking meals from scratch — can go a long way toward addressing both. Scratch cooking gives schools more flexibility to buy from local farms instead of relying solely on distributors who may not be able to fill their orders, and it converts part-time jobs into full-time jobs that can be more satisfying and better paid. What’s more, after initial investment in infrastructure, scratch cooking is cost-effective. (A 2020 study of California schools found that nutrition departments with high levels of scratch cooking spent the same total percentage of their budgets on food and labor — 87 percent — as those that did little to no scratch cooking.)
Since 2013, Minneapolis Public Schools has invested in scratch cooking infrastructure and built a robust farm-to-school supply chain that includes 15 partner farms, cooperatives and food hubs for the 2021-2022 school year. The district partners with farmers who grow specific items for them in the quantities they request — a process called forward contracting — which has kept the price of farm-to-school products stable in comparison with the pandemic price volatility of food the district sources from large national producers.
Like other employers in the low-wage service and education sectors, school nutrition programs have long struggled to recruit and retain enough employees to fill hourly positions. The majority of the roughly 420,000 workers employed in K-12 school nutrition programs are in part-time, low-wage jobs without full benefits or union representation. An average hourly wage of $11 to $15 simply isn’t enough for employees to support themselves without working multiple jobs or receiving public assistance. As the labor union Unite Here, which represents K-12 cafeteria workers in multiple cities, puts it, “One job should be enough.” And it can be.
Districts that use a scratch-cooking model, dishing up menu items like turkey and wild rice meatloaf, Vietnamese noodle bowls and beef tacos, support more full-time employees and higher-quality jobs. They are able to offer prospective employees a set of job characteristics notoriously difficult to find in food service: predictable schedules, no evenings, no weekends, the promise of benefits, a sense of purpose — maybe even a union that allows them to exercise their collective power, as SEIU Local 284 workers in Minneapolis have done.
Universal school lunches have enormous potential
According to a Biden administration task force, requiring schools to employ cafeteria workers full-time would minimize future disruptions and increase union density. This, along with a federally financed increase in wages and benefits, would ensure one job is enough for the workers who feed and care for the nation’s children.
When schools have adequate infrastructure and staffing, scratch cooking may even save money. Anneliese Tanner, the former food-service director of the Austin Independent School District and current director of research and evaluation at the Chef Ann Foundation, found that scratch-prepared hummus cost 25 cents less per serving than a prepackaged cup, and scratch-made cheese enchiladas cost 14 cents less per serving than a prepackaged equivalent.
Despite the benefits, many schools lack the necessary facilities and equipment, because the federal government did not allocate any money for this purpose from 1981 until the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Federal disinvestment in school food infrastructure hit low-income districts the hardest. A 2020 study assessing the scratch-cooking readiness of California public schools found that wealthier and majority-White districts do more scratch cooking than lower-income and majority-non-White districts. Wealthier districts have higher tax bases and more access to local funding and so are better able to pay for scratch cooking themselves.
The state is addressing these inequities. California has committed to providing free school meals for all students and allocated $150 million to improve kitchen infrastructure and staff training. The California Comeback Plan further invests over $127 million to bolster more resilient and equitable food systems, including $60 million designated for the California Farm to School Incubator Grant Program and $15 million to support food hubs and cooperatives.
At the federal level, Congress has introduced multiple bills that support scratch cooking and local food, including the bipartisan Scratch Cooked Meals for Students Act. And the Biden administration has taken steps to help schools withstand the acute challenges of the pandemic. Specifically, it adjusted reimbursement rates in January to help offset the costs of inflation, updated nutrition standards and allocated $1.5 billion in supply chain assistance funding, $200 million of which will be used to support local sourcing and historically underserved producers.
This is not enough. To truly “build back better,” as the Biden administration would have it, the federal government must make a transformative investment in scratch-cooking infrastructure and job quality while continuing to feed all students free.
Why banning ‘meal shaming’ isn’t enough
Shifting the nearly 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program to a scratch-cooking model could benefit the health and well-being of whole communities, not just children. In the evenings, weekends and school breaks, when kitchens are not being used to prepare meals for students, this public infrastructure could be used to prepare healthy low-cost meals for seniors and other community members who need food assistance. Such innovations took root in the first year of the federal pandemic waivers, with many school districts reaching out to feed adults in their communities. In New York City alone, about 400 schools were converted into community food hubs that distributed millions of grab-and-go meals free.
Some may say that the price of continuing federal child nutrition waivers (estimated at over $11 billion for the 2022-2023 school year) is too high and that the same goes for additional investment in labor and infrastructure. But the cost of inaction is higher. According to a true cost analysis from the Rockefeller Foundation, the pre-pandemic school breakfast and lunch programs generated $21 billion a year in net value to society through improvements in health outcomes and poverty reduction. This could be increased by an additional $10 billion annually if schools maximize student participation, improve nutritional quality, and buy environmentally sustainable and locally sourced ingredients. Public investment at federal and state levels is key to unlocking this potential.