School meals are the main source of nutrition for millions of children every day – and research has shown that healthy school meals can enhance student well-being and success while also supporting farmers and rural economies. That’s why we were encouraged to see the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) take an important step toward improving the rules that guide school meals, including:

  • enabling schools to source local products more easily; and
  • bringing nutrition standards up to date with the latest nutrition science

Every school food dollar spent locally generates up to $2.16 in economic benefits. Yet on average, local food purchases represent under 20% of total school food expenditures, less than 10% when milk is removed, and an even smaller proportion goes to small and mid-sized farms and food businesses. Increasing procurement from local and regional producers and suppliers to 30% of all school food purchases would create nearly 20,000 new local jobs and nearly $1 billion in annual local wages, according to our True Cost of Food: School Meals Case Study, published in collaboration with the Center for Good Food Purchasing. Not to mention, shorter supply chains will help increase resilience against shocks and can help create the transparency we need in our food system to ensure that we’re getting the most public good out of every public dollar.

We know many schools want to source more local products but find the current rules to be cumbersome and confusing. Explicitly allowing “local” to be used as a bid specification for school meals would enable more schools to purchase regionally grown foods and use their food budgets to achieve greater social value rather than prioritizing only the lowest cost.

Importantly, local does not mean small-scale impact. Across the U.S., institutions like schools and hospitals spend $120 billion on food annually, which means how they spend food purchasing dollars can make a real impact on how food is grown and who benefits.

That includes support for the Good Food Purchasing Program — adopted by cities from Honolulu to Los Angeles to Denver to New York — and other approaches that leverage the collective market power of school food budgets to invest in rural economies, advance racial equity, and support sustainability on farms, in food businesses, and across communities. Learn more about some of our investments.

Read the full article about sustainable school meals by Noah Cohen-Cline at The Rockefeller Foundation.