Advocates Call for More Funding to School Nutrition

Roughly a dozen of them plan to attend Wednesday's budget vote.

Boston Public Schools budget cuts have inspired outrage among some parents and students, most publicly demonstrated by a student walk-out earlier this month. But on March 23, when the Boston School Committee votes on its budget, more than dozen demonstrators will be there for another reason: to call for more funding for nutritious food in schools.

“Comparatively, it is better. Things definitely have improved,” says Stephanie Shapiro, a parent of two BPS students and subcommittee leader of the BPS Citywide Parent Council on Food and Nutrition. “Things are changing, but there’s underground things going on.”

Shapiro, along with her fellow advocates, relays stories of students leaving school to buy snack food; of principals selling junk food from their offices to at least keep students from over-paying at off-campus stores; of teachers keeping mini-fridges stocked with fruit and vegetables so their students have healthy food to eat; of home-packed lunches coming home mostly uneaten because lunch periods are too short. They want those things to change.

“BPS needs to become a national leader in providing healthy, fresh school food to its children, by increasing funding for school food and strengthening its nutrition policy,” says Joan Cannon, who works with anti-fast food campaign Value [the] Meal. “We really do think the city would be mistaken to overlook the importance of funding for nutritious food in schools.”

Cannon acknowledges that it’ll be an uphill battle, given BPS’ already volatile financial situation, but says that’s exactly why the issue matters: Cash-strapped schools are all the more likely to be approached by fast food corporations, ready to trade funding for marketing exposure. Add in the fact that many BPS students take advantage of universal free breakfast and lunch, thus eating most of their meals at school, and Cannon says it’s crucial that the food environment improve in Boston schools.

Nutrition in schools has improved considerably in recent years. Studies say snack options are getting healthier and sugary drinks are disappearing, and BPS has replaced fruit juice with whole fruit—one of a few “low-hanging fruit” changes, as Shapiro calls them. In fact, Boston has actually been lauded for being at the forefront of the school nutrition movement. But, from the perspective of advocates like Shapiro and Cannon, the work is far from over.

In an ideal world, they say, there would be a central kitchen where all BPS meals are prepared from scratch, to ensure freshness, quality, and nutrition. That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon due to financial constraints, but people like Rosanne Walsh, a BPS parent who volunteers to teach nutrition lessons in schools, says spreading health information still needs to be a priority.

“They’re really interested, whether they’re 5 or whether they’re 15,” Walsh says of the students in her lessons. “These kids are hungry, literally, to learn more, and it’s exciting. The challenge, of course, will be obtaining the funding, making it sustainable, and really advocating for making it part of the curriculum, because historically, nutrition is just a few hours a year.”