Since its founding in 2008, Food & Community grantee School Food FOCUS (FOCUS) has been the secret sauce in much of the transformation that’s taking place in school kitchens and cafeterias across the country. Led by Executive Director Toni Liquori, the New York-based nonprofit has a goal that’s ambitious but clear: to leverage the knowledge and procurement power of large school districts to make school meals nationwide more healthful, sustainable and regionally sourced. FOCUS stands for transforming Food Options for Children in Urban Schools. By working with the largest school districts, FOCUS maximizes its impact and builds a solid base for changes to school food nationwide.
Coming Together Around School Food Change
This past May, FOCUS held its third annual National Gathering in Chicago for more than 200 school food service professionals from 25 school districts, their community partners, USDA and CDC representatives, innovative school food vendors, national allies and funders. Participants came together for face-to-face meetings; workshops on everything from USDA chicken specifications to a “grand vision” for the future of school meals; and a chance to sample healthy foods, including oven-“fried” chicken served by local student-chef winners of Healthy Schools Campaign’s Cooking up Change contest.
The annual gathering is just one way FOCUS helps connect the dots for 34 school districts representing more than four million students. FOCUS also develops recommendations on policy issues and facilitates online social sharing so members can trade best practices, exchange ideas and engage in conversations about the challenges they face. But the most far-reaching FOCUS program is its signature School Food Learning Lab.
School Food Learning Labs: Big Districts, Big Changes, Big Impact
The Learning Lab model is simple but profound. FOCUS partners with a large school district – one with over 40,000 students – that has several very specific goals for improving its food service. FOCUS leads from the side, facilitating collaboration between the district’s food service department, a district partner ¬– such as a local nonprofit or department of health – and food system specialists. Together the stakeholders analyze the existing school food supply chain and then develop a procurement plan to enable the school district to source, prepare and serve food that is healthier and more sustainable and regional.
The Learning Lab has collaborated with three large school districts to date: Saint Paul, Minn., Denver and Chicago. In all three cases, the results have been tangible and lasting, and the benefits have accrued not only to the schools and their students but to the regional food system, including small and mid-sized farmers.
The beauty of the Learning Lab model is that the participating districts share their experience and knowledge with all 34 school districts working with FOCUS. This year FOCUS is launching the Upper Midwest Regional Learning Lab, leveraging the buying power of nine large districts with more than four million students in the states of Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.
The Learning Labs and the annual gathering are two paths to the same destination: school food transformation. “Change is incremental,” said a speaker in the closing session of this year’s gathering. “If everyone did one action following the National Gathering, that’s the start of real change.” And with the Regional Learning Lab on the horizon, FOCUS is beginning to move in giant steps.
To watch an inspiring school food music video created by a School Food FOCUS stakeholder, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yyc88gCx3a4