School Food FOCUS: “Turning Capitalism on Its Head” to Improve School Food

by Bettina Elias Siegel on May 31, 2011

For a long time I’ve wanted to write on TLT about School Food FOCUS (Food Options for Children in Urban Schools), a national collaborative that brings together the thirty largest school districts in the country to improve school food.  I’d first read about FOCUS in Janet Poppendieck’s Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, and later learned that my own Houston school district (the seventh largest in the country) is a member of the organization.

The idea behind FOCUS is simple:  large school districts procure so much food that they have considerable market power (second only to the U.S. military when it comes to food purchasing), which FOCUS helps them leverage to pressure manufacturers into producing better food.  FOCUS also creates a forum for large districts to meet and share their collective knowledge about improving school food, and it seeks to bring more regionally sourced food into the school food procurement system.

I recently had a chance to speak with Meredith Modzelewski, FOCUS’s Communications Associate, to learn more.

How FOCUS Came to Be

FOCUS’s Executive Director, Toni Liquori, first started working in the area of public school food procurement in the New York City public schools.  Interested in expanding her successes there on a national scale, in 2007, she held two successive meetings for colleagues in nutrition, sustainable agriculture, hunger, school food, and public health, as well as food service professionals from some of the largest school districts in the country.  Eventually the group received a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and FOCUS was born.

Says Modzelewski, “Until Toni arranged those first two meetings, people from these large school districts – ones with 40,000 or more students – had never been in the same room together, able to share problems and solutions, and share successes and failures.”

Making School Food Healthy, Local and Sustainable

When FOCUS works with a school district, it sets three main goals for school food:  making it more healthful in general, obtaining more of it from local farms, and making it sustainable.  To help it achieve these ends, each district is also paired with an official partner, whether it be a state governmental office, a city department or a nonprofit.

But what “local” or “sustainable” means to one school district might be very different in another.   “Because we work with so many districts, each with its own budget, regulations and needs,” says Modzelewski, “we allow the stakeholders – the school food professionals and their district partners – to make their own decisions about what their goals are.  There’s no such thing as one size fits all.”

Regional Food Hubs: Helping Local Farmers and Economies While Improving School Food

I was particularly interested in FOCUS’s emphasis on local food sourcing.  Modzelewski explained that FOCUS tries to integrate what are known as “regional food hubs” into the school food supply.

The idea behind regional food hubs is simple – farmers always face the challenge of getting their products from farm to market, and that’s all the more true for small, local producers who might not have sufficient trucks, refrigeration units or warehouse space, let alone the marketing savvy to get on the radar of potential customers.  Regional food hubs are now emerging across the country to address these problems, creating strategic partnerships with farmers, distributors, aggregators, buyers and others all along the supply chain.

According to FOCUS, school districts in Colorado and San Diego have already made significant progress toward developing their own regional food hubs.  These districts have found that not only can a regional food system be more efficient than a local or conventional one, but “when food grown regionally is eaten in season, it’s tastier when it reaches kids’ lunch trays – and there’s a better chance that kids will eat it.”

Case Studies: Chicken, Flavored Milk and Local Produce

Using market power to improve school food seems like a slam dunk, but the process isn’t always easy.  My own Food Services Director had told me that it had taken a relatively long time for FOCUS to make improvements in the poultry made available to schools, and that it was still hard to get products meeting the group’s poultry specifications.

I asked Modzelewski to tell me more: “We did have some good talks with different chicken suppliers a little over a year and a half ago.  At that point, it was pretty revolutionary that they were even sitting down to talk with us.  We told them what our specifications were, and at a last year’s annual FOCUS meeting we had our first school food showcase.  We invited vendors who were working toward, or had achieved, our specifications for chicken.  The problem was, most of the products, although great, cost a lot.  Many of our districts at that time couldn’t figure out how they could afford it.”

But progress has been made.  Modzelewski told me that in Chicago and St. Paul, districts are now able to source unprocessed chicken in the form of “naked legs” that can be cooked from scratch (and the same is true here in Houston).  “They’re lower in sodium and have no preservatives — none of the stuff you might find in a processed chicken finger or fajita strip.”  Those school districts have also come up with new protocols on food safety and food preparation for the raw chicken, protocols that can be used around the country.   “In one district,” Modzelewski told me, “they got a Flip camera and the staff made its own training video on how to handle raw protein.”

She added, “We’re pretty excited about those achievements.  We haven’t yet been able to come to a point where we can change the chicken supply for the whole country, but that’s the principle we’re trying to use.  There’s such immense buying power, that if we can get districts to agree on a set of specs to pressure producers, that should get us toward our goal.”

Another success story Modzelewski shared was how St. Paul, Minnesota was able to get local dairies to lower the sugar content in the flavored milk offered to students, a strategy I advocated in my recent post, “My Problem With Jamie Oliver’s War on Flavored Milk.”  Recognizing that St. Paul alone might not be big enough to demand change, the district sent a questionnaire to twenty or thirty other districts in Minnesota asking what each would like to see in terms of ideal sugar content.  It was then able to bundle this information and essentially guarantee suppliers that if they undertook the effort to lower sugar in the milk, there would be sufficient demand.

St Paul has also been able to change its school food bidding process to favor regionally and locally sourced produce, resulting in about 40% of its produce now coming from local farms, and it created educational materials for the lunch room to introduce kids to the local farmers growing their food.

Success stories like these often come from districts – specifically, St. Paul, Denver and Chicago – which have been selected by FOCUS as “Learning Labs.”  To become a Learning Lab, the applying district is asked to set out five to seven specific procurement goals, or to outline goals that it feels would be too hard to try to achieve without outside help.  If chosen by FOCUS as a Learning Lab, a district is then given substantial research and technical assistance, such as being paired with agricultural economists from a nearby university.  “That could mean doing a ton of research or talking to outside groups, like the USDA or the poultry industry, that a district wouldn’t have the time or manpower to do on its own,” explained Modzelewski.

I was so glad to be able to speak with Meredith Modzelewski and learn more about FOCUS.  It seems to me that the organization’s approach – using market power to bring about change – could well be more effective in the long run than any governmental regulation.   As Modzelewski said in our conversation, “We really feel very strongly about our niche and we’re going to keep forging ahead.  It’s a great mix of a nonprofit that’s working the free market, turning capitalism on its head so that it can work for good.  It’s pretty cool.”

[Ed. Note: Coincidentally, FOCUS is holding its annual meeting later this week in Denver, from June 2-4.  Entitled “Transforming School Food: A National Gathering of Peers and Partners Taking on School Food Change,” the conference will draw over 160 school food service professionals and community organizations from over forty large school districts, as well as government agency partners and funders.  In addition to discussing regional food hubs, the group hopes to address how to implement salad bars and incorporate food from school gardens; teaming up with peers who have obtained improved chicken for school meals; the challenge and politics of school breakfast, and more.  Representatives from eighteen food companies will be in attendance, along with a delegation from the USDA.]

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