Paving the way for change in school food procurement
A collaboration among FOCUS, school districts, and community partners, the School Food Learning Lab:
- Analyzes food supply and demand;
- Changes food procurement practices;
- Documents the process, results, and lessons learned.
The Learning Lab not only helps pilot districts as they make big changes, but also creates valuable learning experiences and transmits the emerging practices to over 20 of the largest school districts in the United States. School districts of all sizes will be able to point to the Learning Lab as a crucible for fundamental change in school meals.
The first pilot projects have completed their Learning Labs: Saint Paul Public Schools joined us in fall 2008 and Denver Public Schools followed in spring 2009. Chicago Public Schools became the third Learning Lab in spring 2010.
The Learning Lab’s participatory research approach brought significant, tangible successes to these districts. In 2011, FOCUS launched planning for the Upper Midwest Regional Learning Lab [PDF], bringing valuable lessons learned and progress gained through our single-district Learning Labs to a multi-state, regional level. With approximately nine million students in the states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin, a far greater number of children will be positively affected by procurement change. Perhaps even more important is how the change model will be accelerated and scaled up as districts in the Upper Midwest leverage their combined buying power with suppliers to make better food options accessible to all districts in the region.
For more on our Learning Lab work, check out a brief summary of our Learning Labs [PDF].
After gathering and analyzing data for six months to inform procurement change, Saint Paul Public Schools (SPPS) identified four priority food areas with help from FOCUS and its community partner, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP): milk free of artificial hormones and lower in sugar content, fresh local produce, whole grain breads, and more local and sustainably produced poultry items.
In the 18-month pilot period, SPPS and the Learning Lab team:
- Developed a formal bidding process to increase the percentage of produce that is locally grown; that farm-fresh produce is now in place for the 2009-2010 school year;
- Created “Minnesota Grown” point-of-sale materials;
- Begun preliminary research with bison suppliers to discuss specifications;
- Set the stage for purchasing raw chicken from a Minnesota company;
- Entered into conversations with Sara Lee to improve whole grain content of bread products;
- Successfully worked with milk suppliers to lower sugar content in flavored milks across the entire state of Minnesota.
Read the full Saint Paul Public Schools Learning Lab Case Study [PDF].
Related: Read about USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan’s October 2009 visit to SPPS on the FOCUS blog >
Denver Public Schools
Learning Lab’s second pilot site, Denver Public Schools (DPS), assembled an impressive team of school food service staff and diverse community representatives.
DPS made significant progress. With assistance from the Learning Lab Team and its community partner, Slow Food Denver, DPS has:
- Conducted two rounds of interviews with suppliers, including processors, farmers, and ranchers, as well as the director of the State Commodities program;
- Celebrated “Colorado Proud” School Meal Day in September 2009, with a menu featuring products from around the state;
- Participated in a roundtable with other districts from the Denver metropolitan area, discussing barriers and opportunities for connecting schools and producers;
- Begun development of new RFP criteria for more healthful and locally sourced food;
- Fostered new produce supply relationships that will bring more Colorado-grown fruits, vegetables, beef, and fresh-cooked foods to children’s plates.
Related: Read the Denver Post’s coverage of DPS’s “Colorado Proud Day” efforts >
Chicago Public Schools