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A nutrition safety net for school children enhanced by an Alliance of the largest districts

Welcome to the first blog from the Urban School Food Alliance (Alliance or USFA), a small nonprofit representing 17 of the largest districts in the United States. I am Dr. Katie Wilson, the first paid staff member and first Executive Director of the Alliance.

The story of USFA starts in 2012 when the six largest districts in the country decided they could do better for students, together. So, they formed a non-profit for the purpose of leveraging their collective voice to transform school meals. For seven years, these dedicated school nutrition directors worked tirelessly and strategically to change the marketplace in school nutrition. By increasing their membership to 10 districts, they began to change what was financially feasible in school nutrition programs. It all started with a compostable plate, made specifically for school meals. This evolution of plateware saved hundreds of millions of Styrofoam trays from landfills across these districts. Due to the volumes purchased, all school districts were able to purchase a more environmentally friendly item.

With that success under their belt, they had a case study to show the power of collaboration. The next step for the Alliance was to move on to never-ever antibiotic free chicken. Imagine the shift in chicken production when the largest “restaurant” chain in the country bid never-ever antibiotic free chicken. People sat up and paid attention. The same old routine changed and kids had higher quality food on their school lunch tray.

Fast forward to 2019. The Alliance decided to hire an Executive Director and exploded onto the national scene, allowing broader logo recognition and the ability to work with major, national philanthropic funders.
The Alliance was poised to utilize the power of these major players to make significant, sustainable changes in school meals. Making decisions based on data was critically important to keep the Alliance relevant. We began to collect procurement data from all member districts and enter it into one database. The incredible power of this data is yet to be harnessed but it is giving us the path forward towards our initiatives. It also inspires new questions. What is happening in school procurement? What needs to be changed? How do we continue to drive local procurement and healthier food choices?

Contracting with a data management company, we are able to identify local products, healthier alternatives, and specific high volume items to rewrite healthier specifications. All of this work affirms our pillar of procurement. We know the responsibility we carry. We are committed to using our collaboration as an agent of change. We look to the new processes of food procurement with an eye to higher quality items. We seek these to be the norm in every school cafeteria in every school across these United States.

As the Alliance has grown we have aligned our focus towards the construction of two other critical pillars. We work to educate policy makers and other stakeholders about the importance of strong school food support at the national, state, and local levels. School meals are one of the best safety nets this country has to ensure ALL children have access to healthy meals every day. This is a non-stop effort to keep the pressure on school administrators, teachers, parents, elected officials, and anti-hunger groups about the importance of good food policy in schools.

The final pillar of our organization is the sharing of best practices. These incredibly large districts (50,000+ enrolled students) have very unique challenges and it is imperative that the Alliance creates a platform for those managing these programs to exchange ideas and support one another. This was particularly important during the pandemic when everyone was trying to figure out how to best feed their communities. The Alliance is in a unique position in the association world, as we are the only organization that has members in positions who can actually make changes at the local level. But, this all takes funding. We truly appreciate all those who fund our initiatives and are always hoping for more to join us in investing in the health and well-being of our nation’s future – our children. The members of the Alliance look forward to 2022 and continuing to strengthen school meal programs, the quality of the food available, and the childhood experience of learning the life-long healthy habit of choosing a healthy diet.

Join me each month as I dig into a specific school nutrition topic in this new blog: helping everyone to understand how these programs are run, how they are funded, and the critical role they play in academic success. Let’s build grassroots support for our biggest initiative of making healthy meals available to ALL children as part of the school day. Until next month – be well.

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