For many children, school food programs have the power to make or break their day. The inexpensive or free meals they provide also have a lasting effect on the health and well-being of young people who might not have access to plentiful and nutritious food otherwise. A holistic look at urban food security must surely consider these programs. And school food programs must, therefore, consider the whole food system.
School meals comprised of fresh, local foods are especially important for urban youth—not only because everyone should have access to these foods, but because these meals may be a major source of nutrition in their overall diet. Nutrient dense, locally sourced foods are less accessible and more costly in many cities. Coupled with a rise in the production, popularity, and availability of cheap processed foods, this often makes these lower-nutrient foods seemingly the only practical choice for urban residents. The public health impacts of this dynamic are already being felt around the world. In the United States, more than 35 percent of people age 20 and older are overweight, and many countries now face a “double burden” marked by increases in childhood obesity while undernutrition issues remain unsolved.
A good start for reform: Local authorities should enact policies that encourage or require the school food providers to use local food sources whenever practical. Such policies benefit both local farmers and students, especially when changes to school food programs are used as teaching moments for healthy eating, food access, and agriculture.
Connecting urban procurement policies to dispersed networks of small food producers is a complex task, but one that cities are increasingly finding has multiple rewards. Healthy, sustainable, productive, and profitable agricultural land within city regions provides defense against sprawl and a variety of environmental services like clean water, carbon storage, air filtration, and beauty and recreation. “City Regions as Landscapes for People, Food and Nature” by Thomas Forster and Arthur Getz Escudero emphasizes this regional approach to urban food systems. The paper examines the links between urban and rural landscapes, providing insights that can be applied to school food systems planning, policy, and strategy. A case study from the report exemplifies this approach.
Belo Horizonte, Brazil took a stand against hunger in the 1990s through a concerted effort to provide the citizens of the city access to sustainable, healthy diets. Mayor Patrus Ananias made an explicit mandate to increase healthy food for all as a measure of social justice. This initiative inspired a change in mentality of the people of the city with regard to food, who began to see themselves as active, involved participants in the food system, rather than simply as consumers. Part of the effort included recognizing that family agriculture is important in rural livelihoods, so government procurement and selling incentives prioritized local producers. When the program started, 20 percent of children in the city showed signs of malnutrition, but the situation has since greatly improved. Today, Belo Horizonte’s food system and nutrition support programs are growing, serving more than 23,000 nutritious meals a day to the city’s school children.
In his last report to the UN Human Rights Council as UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter called for a food system that incorporates diverse urban and rural production and consumption systems. Leading urban scholars, urban and regional planners, and municipal authorities gathered at the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia this week ought to critically examine how the relationships between cities and their rural surrounds contribute to or hinder the creation of such food systems. School food programs provide an important pathway for collaboration across sectors that can drive innovative thinking about interconnected food systems at much bigger scales.
For citizens and organizations dedicated to creating healthy, local, and sustainable school food programs, the key to success is engaging as many of the groups that have an interest in the food system as possible. Of course, government environment agencies, food justice and security organizations, the school board, and local farmers, wholesalers and grocers are critical actors; but water departments and clean water groups, parks and recreation departments, chefs and restaurateurs, climate activists, energy departments and utilities, and many others also have a big stake in a healthy local food system. Coalitions that tap into the benefits available to all from food system reform are far stronger, and create more durable solutions, than many actors working on issues alone. In the end, school meals are just one of many steps toward the larger goal of healthy and resilient city regions.
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