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Strength in numbers for charter schools

The New Orleans-based Healthy School Food Collaborative grew out of the challenges charter schools in Louisiana faced while recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

At the time, James Graham was working as director of operations for KIPP, a charter management organization running eight schools in the city.

In the wake of the storm, the state looked to bigger charter management organizations such as KIPP to help single-site or small, multisite schools with transportation, nutrition and facilities management, and Graham was put in charge of food services.

Smaller charter organizations manage food programs by folding them under a larger School Food Authority so the economies of scale benefit them all, Graham says.


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If a charter school opened with just a single grade, it would have only 90 to 120 students. That isn’t very attractive to a large food distributor to bid on providing food services.

“The school would be losing money on every meal that was served,” Graham says.

“But as part of KIPP, instead of 90 students, they would be able to be part of a bid on 20,000 students. We were able to drive their prices down, so they were actually seeing savings and able to invest in their equipment and kitchens.”

As more charter districts took advantage of the offering, the Healthy School Food Collaborative was eventually rolled out of KIPP and into its own limited liability company, providing charter districts with management and consulting services.

It handles bid proposals with large food service companies and now works with charter districts in six states, says Graham, the company’s executive director.

The collaborative works to provide all members with the healthy food that students want to eat.

“We didn’t want to set guidelines so stringent that we were forcing them to a corner store to get a bag of Cheetos and a soft drink,” Graham says. “We got input from professionals and students about how you make healthy food exciting for the students.”

One approach: Take students out to farms to see how food is produced with the hope that they would be more receptive to trying it. “We are pushing healthy eating, but always with an eye on keeping student participation numbers up.”

Healthy School Food Collaborative’s food standards:

  • Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables are served at every lunch–no additives or canned food.
  • No juice is served at lunch.
  • Daily servings reflect variety over the week.
  • A vegetarian lunch entree option must be provided if the main entree is not vegetarian.
  • All grains served must meet the whole-grain-per-serving standard of 0.8 grams.
  • Whole grains must be first in the product ingredient list.
  • No mechanically separated meat is allowed.
  • No serving processed cheese with additives and fillers (e.g., American cheese).
  • All milk served is rBST free or rGBH free (artificial growth hormone free) as declared by the manufacturer.
  • No artificial trans fats or hydrogenated oils in ingredient lists.
  • Only products with little added sugar and natural sugar are allowed.
  • No deep frying is allowed.
  • Water is provided daily as a beverage option.
  • No competitive foods can be sold in the cafeteria or on school premises.
  • Five percent of the food spend must be local (defined as within a 400-mile radius).

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based writer who regularly covers edtech.