Earlier this week, Civil Eats published an inspiring story about a four-school pilot program in East Boston which offers students a “fast casual” dining experience, allowing them to choose from a variety of fresh and a healthful offerings along the lines of a Sweetgreen or a Chipotle. According to the Civil Eats report, kids have embraced the concept enthusiastically, with meal participation at the four pilot schools increasing 15 precent across the board.
I loved everything about this happy story, except for one thing: the subhead chosen for the article, which reads, “A pilot program in one Boston neighborhood could transform the way students eat across the district—and nationwide.”
Because here’s the thing. It seems to me that very little about this extraordinarily well-funded, highly collaborative public-private partnership effort is easily replicable “nationwide.” As the Civil Eats reporter well documented, this pilot program required the efforts of:
- Tommy Chang, Boston’s school superintendent who, according to the piece, “made school food a priority when he took office;”
- a newly hired, highly committed Director of Food and Nutrition Services in the district, Laura Benevidez;
- Boston Public Schools’ former chief of staff, Ross Wilson, who was brought on board to direct the pilot;
- a “veteran chef,” Ken Oringner, who was hired to oversee menu creation and staff training for the pilot;
- Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe’s, who was hired to help with low-cost food purchasing;
- two “food titans” (as the article describes them) — former Shop & Stop supermarket CEO José Alvarez and Friendly’s CEO John Maguire, brought in by Rauch to further assist him with food purchasing; and
- local managers at Sweetgreen, along with RealFood Consulting, a restaurant design firm, who advised the program on how best to equip the pilot schools with “food preparation stations, dishwashing sinks, rice cookers, and combi-ovens, like the ones found in many fast-casual restaurants.”
Most importantly, the program is backed by a private philanthropist, Jill Shah of the Shah Family Foundation. The article doesn’t tell us how much the Shah Family Foundation has donated in total to fund the pilot (and the foundation’s website, linked in the piece, strangely has no actual content that might be consulted), but we can glean from the piece that, at a minimum, the foundation has donated “between $30,000 and $65,000” per school to provide needed kitchen equipment. So that’s a minimum donation of $120,000 – $260,000 right there, but presumably all of the aforementioned people (with the exception of Chang and Benevidez, who are employed by the district) are also getting paid for their services, reflecting a far greater financial contribution.
As Boston’s school food director Benevidez freely admits in the piece, offering these scratch-cooked Sweetgreen-style meals would simply not be possible using only the federal school meal reimbursement:
“If you have a vision for transformation, there’s no way you do that just with a [U.S. Department of Agriculture] subsidy,” Benavidez said. “Like any good entrepreneurial venture, you need some investment to go out and play around and figure out how does this thing transform?”
Chef Ann Cooper, the nationally known school food advocate, is also quoted in the piece and similarly acknowledges this disparity:
“The [Trump Administration] has proposed cutting the USDA budget by more than 20 percent, and that’s where school lunch subsidies come from,” Cooper says. “As that happens, we need to look to these public-private partnerships to make change . . . .”
To bolster her own progressive school meal program in Boulder, Colorado, Cooper also takes advantage of private philanthropy, as do other well known, widely-admired school food directors like Bertrand Weber of Minneapolis Public Schools (funding from Target) and Betti Wiggins, formerly of Detroit Public Schools, now in my district, Houston ISD (funding from the Life Time Foundation).
There’s no shame in taking private money to improve school meals. But when school food reform relies on philanthropy, it can’t be characterized as a sustainable or easily replicable effort. Instead, it inevitably creates a troubling patchwork of “haves” and “have nots” throughout this country, where some kids win the school food lottery and get Sweetgreen-style buffets, while others are handed a grim meal of re-heated, highly processed food — simply because their district lacks the outside funding needed to provide anything better.
So, by all means, let’s celebrate what’s going on in East Boston and learn what we can from the program. But let’s not imply that it “could transform the way students eat . . . nationwide.” Because the only way to do that is to get the federal government to pay districts what it really costs to provide the healthy food all of our kids deserve.
[Edited to add: For those who don’t follow my work regularly, I just wanted to mention that I also regularly contribute original school food stories and Lunch Tray cross-posts to Civil Eats, a food policy daily for which I have the highest respect. My critique of this Civil Eats story was offered only in the spirit of encouraging fully informed, robust conversations about school food reform. Indeed, if you follow my feed on Twitter, you’ll see that I and Steve Holt, the author of the Civil Eats piece, have been having a really cordial, respectful and (I hope) productive conversation about the issues I raised here.]
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