Baltimore public schools are among the latest to join a national coalition working to improve the quality of food served to students.
The Urban School Food Alliance announced Tuesday that Baltimore and two other large school districts have joined their program. The alliance works to use its collective purchasing power to drive up food standards and keep costs down.
The 10 districts involved share the city’s commitment to bringing healthier meals to students, said Elizabeth Marchetta, the district’s executive director of food and nutrition. The school systems will work together to exchange best practices.
“Joining the Urban School Food Alliance will really allow us to improve what we’re offering students,” Marchetta said. “Collectively, there is a lot of power to cause change for the better.”
The member districts of the coalition cover more than 5,500 schools and serve more than 3.6 million children every day. With the addition of Baltimore, Philadelphia and Clark County in Las Vegas, the alliance’s annual purchasing power reaches almost $735 million a year in food and supplies, the coalition said in a news release.
Baltimore schools spent about $24 million on food and supplies in fiscal year 2016, according to city budget documents.
The alliance also includes school districts in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Dallas, and Orange County in Orlando, Fla., and Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It has pushed to help school districts move toward antibiotic-free chicken products and advocated for compostable plates in school cafeterias.
“These are areas we’re also concerned about and are trying to make movement on,” Marchetta said. “We’re excited to work with them to help drive the agenda.”
All Baltimore students receive free breakfast and lunch at school, regardless of family income level. Snacks and dinner are also provided at no cost to students in supervised after-school activities.
The district has been working in recent years to expand the availability of healthy options. Students have unlimited access to fruit and vegetables during meals, and salad is offered daily. More than 2.2 million pounds of local produce was served during the 2015-2016 school year, the last year for which the district has available data.
About 30 percent of school-age Baltimore children live in food deserts, meaning their neighborhoods are largely devoid of fresh and healthy food options. That makes the food they receive at school even more vital, Marchetta said.
“When you look at a city like Baltimore, where the healthy food availability is low, there is a lot of power in having 180 spots throughout the city where we can provide unlimited fruits and vegetables,” she said.