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
In February, FOCUS held its fifth National Gathering in Oakland, Calif., for 240 school food service professionals from 41 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 procuring cosmetically imperfect produce to public-private partnerships; and a chance to cook dinner together at a “pop-up” kitchen. In her keynote, Jennifer LeBarre, director of nutrition services for Oakland Unified School District, told an inspiring story of collaborative effort and community support that has resulted in healthier school meals and funding for an innovative central kitchen, urban farm and education center.
The annual gathering is just one way FOCUS helps connect the dots for 37 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 more than 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 initially collaborated with three large school districts: 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 37 school districts working with FOCUS. In 2012, FOCUS expanded the Learning Lab concept with the multi-district Upper Midwest Regional Learning Lab, leveraging the buying power of seven large districts with more than four million students in the states of Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska and Ohio. More recently, FOCUS has launched the National Procurement Initiative (NPI), a collaborative effort among 15 school districts working to shift large-scale, national supply chains – one critical food item at a time. The initial focus of the initiative is chicken, for which the 15 districts wield a combined $39 million in purchasing power.
The Learning Labs, NPI and the National Gathering are paths to the same destination: school food transformation. “The school meal program is not a job or even a career, it is a calling,” LeBarre told fellow school food professionals in her Oakland keynote. “By making thoughtful changes to the meal program and seeking meaningful partnerships, we can affect change for our children, communities and employees.” Not just change to what’s on the plate, but change that impacts the health and well-being of us all.
Watch an inspiring school food music video created by a School Food FOCUS stakeholder.