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Serving Healthy Food Eating Into CPS' Budget

David Kohl

Updated Tuesday at 12:00 p.m.: 

If buying fresh organic ingredients at the grocery store is breaking the bank, you may have a similar problem as Cincinnati Public Schools.

Three years ago, the school district started participating in something called the Good Food Purchasing Program. The program requires CPS to focus on animal welfare, local economies and environmental sustainability when choosing food vendors.

Those commitments come at a cost.

CPS Supervisor of Nutrition Lauren Marlow says food cost for the district has increased by 38%. "We can't do this with our district alone, we need a larger pipeline," she says. "With a better pipeline we can get better pricing on these items that fit with the Good Food Purchasing Program." She says low participation from large institutions places more financial burden on the district.

The district is one of 10 participating in the Good Food Purchasing program across the U.S.

The organizations Local Food Connection and Green Umbrella connect the district to local farmers. The partners are working to get institutions like the Cincinnati Zoo to buy into the program as well.

Program Director at Local Food Connection Anna Haas helps connect institutions to local farmers. "They understand also, what is different about institutions in terms of their needs?" she says. "Some of the items that could be good for them; items that might not be good for them."

Participants in the Good Food Purchasing program are incentivized to purchase from farmers who are just starting out, have limited resources, or are a woman; minority; veteran; disabled; or otherwise socially disadvantaged. During 2019 and January of 2020, the district bought items from eight farmers within 250 miles of the district. Seven of those are small, family or cooperatively owned. 

Three years ago, the district piloted the Good Food Purchasing Program during breakfast. For students' birthdays, the school serves up confetti pancakes. A secret you probably don't want your kids to hear is that it has no artificial flavors or dyes. All meals have to go through the program's standards.

CPS Director of Student Dining Services Jessica Shelly says serving more breakfast could balance CPS' food cost budget. She says the cost of quality food and paying food service workers a $15.30 minimum wage plus benefits is causing the district to lose money. "We make money for every breakfast we serve because it does have a decreased labor cost associated with it," she says. That's because breakfast foods require very little prep work. But, she adds, "The food costs are still increased because we increased holding ourselves to the same standards for our breakfast meals that we do for our lunch meals."

Shelly says the money saved from labor during breakfast allows the school to reinvest that money into food for lunch.

Federal dollars support the entire food budget, she adds. The USDA's sponsored Community Eligibility program allows the district to offer free breakfast to all schools. Only nine CPS schools don't receive free lunch. 

The district currently serves 81% of its students' lunch, while only 51% eat breakfast.

The Obama administration implemented new standards that required schools to ensure students received more vegetables, fruits and whole grains. On Friday, the Department of Agriculture argued those regulations are increasing costs and leading to more food waste. CPS says healthy choices come at a price that its willing to pay.

School of Creative and Performing Arts Senior Rocky Chatman says if he could write a Yelp review, he would say, "Every Wednesday when we have chicken wings, I would say that's good. But otherwise it's not really good. It doesn't really fill you up. It's not big portions."

If he had some tips on improving food quality, he says making sure food is hot and not lukewarm, plus bigger portions, would be his recommendation.

CPS says it is planning to roll out a new system that allows students to click a green or red face to show their food satisfaction. Currently, the district reviews data on how many students take each item.

At the beginning of the school year, parents were concerned late buses were not allowing their children to eat. Shelly says her department is collaborating with transportation to ensure students' needs are met. The district also has a grab-and-go kiosk to meet students where they are.

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Ambriehl Crutchfield
Ambriehl is a general assignment reporter with interest in education and communities. She works to amplify underrepresented voices and advance daily news stories. She comes to WVXU with previous reporting experience at NPR member stations WBEZ in Chicago and WKYU in Bowling Green, Ky.