For almost 30 years, under the pressure of shrinking school budgets, communities across the country have experimented with handing control of school food to private, for-profit corporations. This has taken many shapes, from candy and soda vending machines in the hallways to chicken nuggets on the lunch tray, to the transference of entire meals programs to private companies.
Today roughly a quarter of American schools have privatized their meals programs, primarily to a few massive corporations. These companies make all decisions about staffing, menu planning and ingredient sourcing.
Here on Martha’s Vineyard, three of seven island schools have been under contract with a major multinational food service corporation for 23 years to serve lunches to their students. It has always seemed incongruous to me that our community, which strictly limits the ability of chain stores from opening on the island, would turn over control of the food served to local children to a corporation. I’m not the only one who has felt troubled by this. There has long been concern about the quality of these meals, and about the morality of abdicating responsibility for feeding children to a non-local, for-profit company. There has also been a desire to provide all dedicated local food service workers with a fair, living wage.
I coordinate Island Grown Schools, the island’s farm to school program, and for the past two years, we have worked with dozens of dedicated community members to find a way to end the corporate contract and move control of the meals program back to the schools themselves. We started with community outreach and education about the possibilities, practicalities, and importance of bringing healthy food to our kids. School gardens, taste testings, community local food suppers, farm field trips, and in-class learning about food, agriculture, and nutrition have helped build enthusiasm among the children towards eating healthy food, and showed parents the spectrum of fresh, healthy, locally grown foods their kids would actually eat.
Next, we reached out to plumbers, electricians and builders, who volunteered their skills to expand one school’s kitchen facility to make meals from scratch on-site, rather than having them trucked up daily from the central corporate kitchen. Architects donated their time to draw up plans that would make the new kitchen as functional and inexpensive to build as possible. Owners of restaurants and commercial kitchens offered to donate kitchen equipment. Together, this community good will brought the estimated cost of the kitchen renovation from $500,000 to $81,000.
Parents, grandparents, farmers, and community members flocked to School Committee meetings to show their support for these changes in the school meals program. And finally, in December, at the last budgeting meeting for next school year, the School Committee voted to end the corporate contract, expand the kitchen, and take community ownership again over the food served to our children at school.
Assuming next year’s school budget will be passed at town meetings in the spring, the renovated kitchen facility will be expected to provide 500,000 meals over the next 25 years to island children. Four local workers will be employed at a living wage to create and serve made-from-scratch meals for the kids. And these changes help our kids see that we aren’t just telling them to eat better — we as a community are willing to invest in the food they are served at school to help them grow up as healthy, smart, and strong as they can.