By Alex Judge, Senior Analyst & Project Manager, Shah Foundation
Ever since the Reagan administration proposed allowing public schools to count ketchup as a school-lunch vegetable, the nutritional content—or lack thereof—of school food has been a front and center issue in the U.S. And rightly so: research shows a clear link between healthy eating and academic performance. Well-nourished kids get better grades, have fewer absences, and have higher graduation rates.
In a city like Boston, where two thirds of public school students live at or below the poverty line, improving kids’ access to healthy, nutritious food is critically important. And yet, it is a monumental task. There are supply-chain considerations, procurement issues, contract limitations, and refrigeration and cooking constraints; and, of course, funding is always in short supply. (For context, BPS served over 10 million meals between breakfast and lunch in the 2017-2018 school year.)
But we at the Shah Foundation--not unlike the folks at One Mighty Mill--like a challenge.
Founded in January 2017, our foundation was established by Jill and Niraj Shah to give back to the city of Boston—a city in which they both have had success. (Niraj is the co-founder of Wayfair, the online furniture retailer; Jill is an entrepreneur in her own right, having sold her most recent company in 2013.) Our goal is to support innovative and transformative work in the areas of community, healthcare, and education. We are especially interested in projects where those three areas intersect.
A little over a year ago, we started a school food project in partnership with Boston Public Schools with a simple objective: we want to help get more wholesome, fresh, locally sourced, (and delicious) food into the bellies of Boston Public School (BPS) students.
We are not a typical foundation—we like to roll up our sleeves and immerse ourselves in the work. In the summer of 2017, we built kitchens at three elementary schools in East Boston. Previously, these schools had only warming ovens and basic coolers, which means they couldn’t cook their own food. Having a kitchen gives the schools more flexibility around the meals they serve.
Next, we devised new dining options for the students. Working with the team at BPS’s Food & Nutrition Services, we created My Way Café, which enhanced and expanded breakfast and lunch choices. We hired new staff at the schools to prepare, cook, and serve the meals. And we set up salad bars. In addition, we created a system to calculate how much food is eaten (and how much food is thrown away) so we can make accurate predictions on how much food the kitchens should make. This helps reduce waste and keep costs low.
Importantly, we also expanded partnerships with local vendors to ensure the schools have access to high-quality ingredients. A Watertown-based produce provider, Russo’s, delivers in-season fresh fruits and vegetables. We found two Massachusetts-based seafood suppliers, Red’s Best and North Coast, to deliver sustainably sourced fish. The district works with 88 Acres, the Dorchester-based baker, to provide nut-free bars and granola. We also grew our relationship with Sal’s Pizza, a local pizza maker, because you can’t run a school cafeteria without serving pizza.
This fall, we are excited to add One Mighty Mill to our line-up at BPS. Its mission—to bring back wheat you can eat—immediately resonated with us. OMM is growing and grinding wheat like our ancestors used to. As a result, its flour preserves what’s good for us about wheat: its fiber-filled bran and nutrient-rich germ. OMM’s baked goods—bagels, tortillas, and pretzels—are made with simple dough, consisting of little beyond house milled flour, filtered water, and yeast.
Since our partnership began last month, OMM has already delivered 11,000 fresh-milled, nutrient rich bagels and 10,000 tortillas to kids in East Boston neighborhoods who need it most. We expect to quadruple those numbers by January as more schools are rolled into the My Way Cafe Program.
By all accounts, the bagels and tortillas are a huge hit with the kids—even ones who are notoriously picky eaters. The other day, I had a conversation with a school principal in the cafeteria. She told me that she spotted a student identified as "failure to thrive" –which means the child refuses to eat most foods—happily munching on a breakfast sandwich made with an OMM bagel!
With our focus on bringing unprocessed, fresh cooked food into Boston Public School kitchens and stomachs, it’s important to collaborate with others who share our vision. We couldn’t be more excited to partner with OMM, an organization that produces whole, real, delicious food, and really cares about feeding Boston kids.