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Many School Kitchens Inadequate, Cafeteria Directors Report

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Many school kitchens are better suited for opening cans and boxes of prepackaged foods than for preparing made-from-scratch entrees and paring skins from farm-fresh produce, a study released this week says.

That's because they lack space and necessary equipment, which can make it difficult for some schools to comply with new federal student nutrition standards, says the study, which was compiled by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Those standards require more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and nonfat dairy products.

School lunches might not be the most glamorous thing to be concerned about (I've never heard Bono talk about them), but they are pretty important. More than 31 million U.S. kids participate in the National School Lunch Program every day. Poor standards in such a large program would mean millions of kids who aren't getting all of the tools they need to thrive. And poorly stocked and constructed kitchens add another barrier to meeting their nutritional needs.

Part of the problem is a lack of consistent capital funding, the report says:

"Since the beginning of the National School Lunch Program, the federal government has provided funding for school kitchen equipment. However, until 2009, nearly 30 years had passed without funding for this priority. In 2009 and 2010, primarily with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the USDA provided $125 million to [school food authorities] to purchase, renovate, or replace food service equipment. The agency received more than $630 million in grant requests from [school food authorities] in response to ARRA funding, suggesting a substantial unmet need."

Researchers based the report on 3,459 self-administered surveys completed online by school food-service managers. They then weighted the responses using a statistical model that ensured a representative sample of different school factors, like enrollment sizes and geographic locations. Among the report's findings:

  • About 88 percent of school food leaders surveyed need additional equipment to adequately prepare meals. This ranges from less-expensive items like knives and cutting boards to costlier items like $2,000 industrial food processors.
  • Just 42 percent of respondents had a capital equipment budget. Of those, just 43 percent thought that budget was sufficient.
  • About 55 percent of respondents said they need infrastructure changes, like additional space for food storage and service.

Despite the challenges, a majority of schools are complying with the new standards, the study says. Many school food workers are relying on "workarounds," such as off-site storage and manually chopping foods, but those add time and expense to a preparation process that requires great efficiency, the report says.

Help is on the way for some schools. As the report was released, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $11 million in grants for school cafeteria equipment.

In addition to the District of Columbia and Guam, 14 states were selected to receive grants based on their levels of  free- and reduced-price participation in the National School Lunch Program and greatest unmet need, the USDA says in a news release. The states chosen are Arkansas, California, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington. States will competitively award the funds to school districts to purchase needed equipment, with priority given to districts serving a high percentage of low-income children.

Photo: Arlington Public Schools food service workers discuss the day's lunch service for Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia.USDA Photo by Bob Nichols.

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