National Farm to School Network Applauds the Biden-Harris Administration for Recognizing Crucial Role of School Meals in Improving Child Nutrition and Hunger

NFSN Staff
September 28, 2022

By Miguel Villarreal and Karen Spangler

For the first time in 50 years, the White House is leading a summit on hunger, nutrition, and health to tackle hunger and diet-related diseases in America. National Farm to School Network is excited and grateful to be at this summit to discuss transformative change, which will include topics like food as medicine, promoting physical activity, childhood nutrition, public-private partnerships, and equity.

Yesterday, the Biden-Harris administration released its National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. We were delighted to see that school meals are prioritized in this strategy: “The Biden-Harris administration will advance a pathway to free healthy school meals for all, working with Congress to expand access to healthy, free school meals for 9 million more children by 2032.” The strategy also calls for farm to school activities such as local purchasing, nutrition education, and scratch cooking as “essential components” of the effort. 

 “The Biden-Harris administration will advance a pathway to free healthy school meals for all, working with Congress to expand access to healthy, free school meals for 9 million more children by 2032.”

On behalf of the National Farm to School Network, we applaud and thank the administration for recognizing the crucial role of school meals in improving child nutrition and hunger. This strategy of farm to school and child nutrition hits multiple values and returns on investment for hunger, nutrition, and health with one government program that already exists. It is straightforward and effective.

However, just days after the conference concludes, schools and families across the nation will still be faced with the unfortunate reality: the special child nutrition waivers that have kept hundreds of thousands of students out of hunger through the COVID-19 pandemic are set to expire on September 30. 

The child nutrition waivers introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic offered every child, regardless of economic status, the ability to receive a meal at no charge throughout the pandemic. The program also allowed schools greater flexibility to prepare and serve meals and reduced the lengthy administrative paperwork required for distributing millions of school meals. 

School districts across the country are still facing challenges in keeping their programs viable as we “return to normal” after the pandemic. Record inflation, higher than at any point since the early 1980s, has impacted prices across the board and the supply chain continues to experience unprecedented challenges. Right now, in America, too many families are choosing between feeding their children nutritious food and paying for other vital expenses. The most recent national data estimates 12 percent of households with children—that’s 1 in 8 kids—experience food insecurity. 

If we can’t act on extending the waivers—and the signs are not good—then there’s still another big opportunity to do the right thing by hungry children: improve and strengthen child nutrition and school meal programs by acting on Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR). The CNR process usually happens every five years. But the last time Congress acted on this was more than a decade ago. This means schools and meal providers are working with outdated regulations that don’t reflect the current needs of children and families. Thankfully, the recent version of the CNR passed by the House Education and Labor Committee is extremely promising

Following this week’s Summit, Congress has an opportunity to act on behalf of school food service programs. If Congress advances the next Child Nutrition Reauthorization, we have an important opportunity—the first in a decade—to leverage federal farm-to-school and other child nutrition policies to shift power towards a more just food system. We are hopeful that the Biden-Harris administration’s national strategy will begin to tackle this issue, and we urge Congress to work closely with the administration to recognize the urgency and importance of a national free healthy school meals for all policy.

Policy change happens because people dedicate their time and attention to educating and urging legislators to recognize needs in order to make critical changes for the people within their communities. Everyone, not just lobbyists, can advocate for fairness in the food system. National Farm to School Network is proud to be one of many organizations in this endeavor. We will take this opportunity to advocate for positive and sustainable change on behalf of our nation’s children and families and hope to do this together with you.

Miguel Villarreal is the Interim Co-Executive Director at National Farm to School Network.

Karen Spangler is the Policy Director at National Farm to School Network

NFSN Welcomes Interim Co-Executive Directors Jessica Gudmundson and Miguel Villarreal

NFSN Staff
September 19, 2022

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

(September 19, 2022, Petaluma, CA and Atlanta, GA) — National Farm to School Network (NFSN) is excited to introduce its new Interim Co-Executive Directors. Jessica Gudmundson, who has been part of NFSN since its inception, and Miguel Villarreal, who previously served as Chair for NFSN's Advisory Board, are taking the mantle as co-leaders at NFSN.

Why a Co-Leadership Model?

NFSN identified its Call to Action in 2019 and has since been taking action to move this call forward. NFSN recognizes its own power and influence and is taking the necessary steps to do power-shifting work both externally and internally. The model of leadership is one crucial part of this and NFSN has been interested in implementing it. With the opportunity for an Interim Executive Director, it is the right time to bring this model into practice to decentralize decision-making, make more capacity for leadership by drawing on the strengths of the co-leaders and live the Call to Action.

The vision behind co-leadership is to increase the ability to be responsive to stakeholders through centering relationships/collaboration in the way that we work and what we value. With a vast network across the country already doing amazing work, NFSN has made strides to build this collective action, and this is the next step for what NFSN wants to accomplish. Villarreal says, "we hope to model this for staff and partners because at its core, farm to school is all about collaboration."

While NFSN does not claim to be an authority or expert on all things equity-related, NFSN is committed to the work to reduce harm and shift power. Through its experiences, NFSN is continually shifting internal practices to better reflect its Call to Action. Through the team's relationships with people, NFSN holds firm to its accountability to others, and the team is humbled to support and lift the power held in communities.

Advisory Board Chair Sommer Sibilly says, "as we work to shift and share power we need to become comfortable building relationships and leading together. I personally see this as a demonstration of our commitment to that." The Advisory Board is excited to welcome the two Interim Co-EDs knowing they have the experience and care necessary to move NFSN forward and build this collective work with partners.

About Jessica Gudmundson

Gudmundson brings 17+ years of experience running organizational finance, policy and operations. Regarding her personal connection to the work, she shares, "as someone who grew up in a home that didn't always have food, making sure kids are fed and valued through food is important to me." Villarreal shares his excitement to work with Gudmundson, "I cannot think of someone more capable to work alongside as Co-ED than Jessica."

About Miguel Villarreal

Villarreal brings 30+ years of experience as a Food Service Director. During his tenure, he implemented farm to school initiatives while building a vast network of local, state and national stakeholders to advance those efforts. Gudmundson shares, "When the idea of co-leadership was discussed, I was excited at the opportunity to work with Miguel again. We balance each other very well and bring different perspectives and skills that allow both of us the freedom and support to make real and helpful impacts in our roles."

Looking Ahead. Working Together.

Gudmundson and Villarreal shared that their vision is to create the conditions where all the incredible leaders in this work can be successful and make sure their impact is realized, valued, supported and encouraged. Gudmundson says, "I'm always inspired by the people in this work: Staff members, our network partners, and other individuals and organizations who are in this work. I see so much value in the people and the work that's already happening."

Advisory Board Vice-Chair Laura Edwards-Orr says, "I'm so pleased to welcome Jessica and Miguel as Interim Co-Executive Directors of the Network. As long-time leaders in the movement in their own rights, this partnership weaves together decades of complementary experience within a structure that is grounded in our desire to shift power and uplift the tremendous talents of the entire National Farm to School Network team. I look forward to working with both Jessica and Miguel in the months to come."

Together, Gudmundson and Villarreal will join together with staff and partners to implement the Call to Action. They will work together with the Advisory Board in the Executive Director Search, making sure that the vision is carried forward. Through partnering with the many incredible leaders in this work, building community power and taking collective action, NFSN looks forward to seeing this work come to fruition.

Opinion: Nutrition waivers are needed to keep feeding hungry students in South Bay this fall

NFSN Staff
July 27, 2022

By Eric Span

Eric Span is the Director of Nutrition Services at Sweetwater Union High School District and lives in Chula Vista.

"Running the second largest secondary school district nutrition program in California during a pandemic — impacted by supply and staffing shortages — has had its challenges and its wins. The last two years stretched everyone across the nation and world, but despite many challenges, here in the Sweetwater Union High School District, located in Chula Vista, the seventh-largest city in Southern California, we successfully served 8.74 million meals to our students.

During the pandemic, Congress provided relief by passing special child nutrition waivers, which allowed schools more flexibility in service and meal preparation, in addition to reducing the administrative paperwork that comes with distributing meals to millions of students. We are hopeful Congress will extend the waivers that expire this week as the food supply chain is still experiencing challenges.

Last year in California, the Healthy School Meals for All legislation was passed. This means the state will cover the cost of two nutritious meals each day for all children beginning in the 2022-23 school year. Just as every child receives a textbook, each will receive a meal as well with hopes to reduce hunger and remove stigma for students in accessing meals. It is my dream that this becomes a national initiative. Our children are worth it!

There is no better way to unify than around a lunch table. And, in a country as great as America, there should be no barriers for students to learning. Those include at the lunch table."

Read the full op-ed at The San Diego Tribune

Opinion: The cost of a lunch should not stand in the way of Colorado schoolchildren

NFSN Staff
June 20, 2022

By Tanna Schut

Tanna Schut is a parent and advocate located in Pueblo, Colorado

"Here’s why we should cover the costs of school lunch for all children. Right now, kids who do qualify for free school lunches would, once again, face stigma in the lunch line. Healthy School Meals for All will remove that stigma and make sure more students get the food they need. It also will mean more students do better in school. Schools could spend less money on meal administrative costs and spend more money on nutritional and kitchen staffing.

Groups like the National Farm to School Network have been campaigning to ensure that our school meals are aligned with values like economic justice and respecting workers and educators. The measures in Colorado will lead the way, nationally, on these issues, and inspire states across the country to follow suit. Schools will be able to provide healthy meals and do more scratch cooking.

They’ll also get money to train their canteen staff in how to do it, which is an important step. I like the idea of our schools working with local farmers to source local ingredients. It will help strengthen Colorado’s economy as well as student health.

I’m glad schools are shifting their thinking about the lunches we serve our children. There’s more parent and student input, and we’re raising our voices to say healthy, local food is important to us.

Assuring healthy meals for all schoolchildren will mean one less thing standing in the way of our children’s future, so all our children can succeed."

Read the full op-ed at The Colorado Sun

NFSN’s Comments on Dietary Guidelines for Americans: Proposed Scientific Questions

NFSN Staff
June 2, 2022

In April, the US Department of Health and Human Services published its proposed list of scientific questions for the next update of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). The DGA, reviewed and updated every five years, provides the foundation for the federal government’s recommendations to the public about eating patterns that lead to better health outcomes. Federal child nutrition program standards, like school breakfast and lunch, are required by law to align to the DGA recommendations for kids. So this process of examining scientific evidence on diet underpins the work that farm to school and farm to ECE stakeholders are doing every day. 

NFSN commended the Advisory Committee for its proposed examination of the health effects of ultra-processed foods, the negative impact of added sugars, evidence on effects of saturated fat, and a lifespan approach that recognizes that a diversity of culturally relevant meal pattern approaches can support health. We also commend the commitment to examining all findings through a health equity lens. 

We were dismayed at what seemed to be an increased emphasis on weight, weight management, and obesity as the primary marker of health and main goal of the DGA. body-mass index (BMI), the most common measure of obesity, is a flawed and racially biased way to measure body composition for individuals and diverse populations, and of questionable value as a primary predictor of health. The purpose of Dietary Guidelines for Americans is to review evidence and make recommendations to help Americans avoid chronic disease and enjoy longer, healthier lives. An increased emphasis on weight as a primary goal is, in both substance and implementation, likely to increase racial harms, for instance in medical settings where Black and Brown patients are already at risk of delayed or denied care. Similarly, we worry about the health impact for children of emphasizing weight management as a primary goal of diet quality, rather than nourishing and supporting them for the healthiest and most empowered lives. We encourage the Advisory Committee to focus on the evidence that improves specific chronic disease and well-being outcomes for children and youth, regardless of their weight. 

Finally, NFSN shares the sentiments of many nutrition advocates in calling on the DGA to recognize that sustainability and health are interdependent. The proposed questions would remove questions of the healthiest sustainable diet for examination in a separate process at a later date. NFSN stakeholders work closely with producers and communities who provide child nutrition programs with whole, fresh, and unprocessed foods that nourish kids. Therefore they know that the ability to consume a healthy diet depends on whether our planet can continue to support its production, and the two questions are not exclusive. 

In our comments on the 2020 Dietary Guidelines, NFSN highlighted how farm to school and farm to ECE activities offer proven strategies and tools to help kids learn about the food system, gain lifelong food skills, and shift power within their own food environment. As the process of updating and implementing the DGA continues, NFSN will continue to monitor opportunities for NFSN stakeholder and community comment. 

See NFSN’s full comments here

Schools should avail of state funding to serve more freshly prepared and locally grown food

NFSN Staff
May 25, 2022

By Brandy Dreibelbis

Brandy Dreibelbis is the Senior Director of School Operations at Chef Ann Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting whole-ingredient, scratch-cooking in schools. This approach enables schools to serve the healthiest, tastiest meals so that kids are well-fed and ready to learn.

"Through the pandemic, we’ve learned how crucial school food is to America’s food supply. We’ve also learned how many school-age children and families depend on these meals. And we’ve learned how important our school food professionals are. Scratch cooking makes staff feel appreciated for their effort, and children are well-nourished and ready to learn. The kitchen staff are proud of what they’ve made. There’s a connection with the local farms. Supply chains are shorter and more crisis-proof — schools are less vulnerable to rising prices as food gets more difficult to source. Labor costs go to local folks because they are paid to cook in-house."

Read the full op-ed at EdSource

Opinion: Congress Should Act Now to Extend School Food Waivers

NFSN Staff
May 5, 2022

By Nausher Khan, National Farm to School Network Board Member

Nausher Khan is an advisory board member of the National Farm to School Network and director of strategic business partnerships at Red Rabbit, LLC, USA’s largest Black-owned school food management company celebrating food from all cultures in the cafeteria.

“Millions of American children could go hungry this summer unless Congress acts soon. That’s because an end looms on June 30 for a series of special COVID-era waivers. Among other things, they allow schools to serve free meals to all students. But eliminating the waivers risks more than hunger, it also jeopardizes other gains made in child nutrition programs under the waivers. 

There are more than two dozen waivers, tackling everything from easing the congregate-feeding requirement, which requires children to travel to a central location and eat their meals together at the site, to eliminating the need for household income verification. New York and Illinois are two states which have announced they are extending the emergency contract option for food service into next year, and other states can follow their lead.

The overall intent of the waivers is reasonably simple: Allow school systems to have more flexible conversations with food service management companies and feed more children without administrative red tape. When it comes to feeding kids, these conversations are not only focused on price. They also focus on the values schools are communicating when they make food choices. They allow decision-makers to broaden relationships with suppliers in the communities they serve and use food service to signal the importance of culture and community to their children.

Many food management companies and producers of color are small to mid-sized, and we have benefited from the added flexibility in the way schools negotiate. The waivers have allowed us to retain staff and pay an honest living wage and continue buying fresh produce while serving scratch-made meals to a larger student body. The end of the waivers jeopardizes our success, and the success of others like us around the country and here in New York.”

Read the entire op-ed here. 

Applications Now Open for Local Food for Schools Cooperative Agreement Program

NFSN Staff
April 5, 2022

On March 17, USDA opened applications for the Local Food for Schools Cooperative Agreement Program (LFS). The program will make $200 million available to state governments to purchase local food for school meal programs. The program has three overarching goals:

  • Provide opportunities for states to strengthen their local and regional food system,
  • Support socially disadvantaged farmers/producers and small businesses, and  
  • Establish and broaden relationships between schools and fresh, nutritious food. 

Program details: 

With LFS funding, state agencies will procure domestic, local, unprocessed or minimally processed foods from local farmers and ranchers. Purchases should target socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers as well as small businesses. State agencies will then distribute food to schools in their state that participate in the National School Lunch Program and/or the School Breakfast program. In addition to purchasing food, funds may also be used to cover storage and transportation costs. 

Eligible applicants for LFS are state agencies or departments responsible for agriculture, procurement, food distribution, emergency response, administration of the National School Lunch Program, or similar activities within the state. Only one award per state/territory is available, so agencies within the same state wanting to implement this program should coordinate with one another. The applicant may partner or collaborate with non-profit, for-profit, public, and/or private entities. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis but the final deadline is June 17, 2022, at 11:59 p.m. 

Funding background and complementary opportunities:

The Local Food for Schools Cooperative Agreement is part of a larger package of money from the USDA Commodity Credit Corporation intended to help school food authorities cope with increased food costs and supply chain issues. Other recent funding from USDA through the Local Agriculture Markets Program (LAMP) Farm to Institution tracks offers complementary opportunities for increasing infrastructure, coordination, and technical assistance to facilitate farm to institution purchasing (see our recent blog post here for more details). Additionally, the Local Food Purchase Cooperative Agreement (LFPA) infuses an additional $400 million in funding for state agencies to purchase and distribute food from small and “socially disadvantaged producers” to increase equity in market opportunities. While these models each have their own constraints, it is gratifying for federal support to recognize the crucial role of building more resilient food systems that begin to shift opportunities for producers and communities. Pursuing and learning from these first-of-a-kind opportunities will offer important lessons to build on as we advance our call to action to shift power toward a racially just food system.

Next steps: 

To read the LFS Request for Application and learn more about the program, visit the USDA’s website: https://www.ams.usda.gov/selling-food-to-usda/lfs 

Share this announcement with relevant state agencies in your area. Review the RFA to determine if your organization would like to be a partner or collaborator on this cooperative agreement. 

Advocate to your state agency for the involvement of socially disadvantaged farmers/producers and small businesses in the creation of the application.

See other open federal funding opportunities relevant to NFSN partners by following this link: https://docs.google.com/document/d/145zNQ4W-ZfI2HQpZo-g87uzmIU1xJqKc62kTtFvUZdw/edit?usp=sharing