On January 15-16, 2023, I attended the School Nutrition Industry Conference in San Diego. There, I met with many of our food industry partners that deliver food to school districts across the country. Food industry partners play a crucial role in producing, procuring and delivering food for our school meal programs. Despite the challenges that industry and school food service operators have encountered over the past few years, we are grateful for everything they do to deliver food and serve nutritious meals to tens of millions of children every day.
The feedback we received during the conference, especially the listening sessions, provided us with valuable information about how USDA can support our industry partners and food service operators. We know that developing healthy and appealing menus on a budget is a tall order, especially with lingering supply chain issues and the high cost of food. However, at USDA, we continue to use every tool available to help schools navigate the landscape. We’ve provided maximum flexibilities within our authorities and have provided billions of dollars of funding through Supply Chain Assistance, USDA Foods, and other channels. We will continue to support our partners moving forward because we know how vital healthy school meals are for children to learn, grow, and succeed.
While in San Diego, Deputy Under Secretary Stacy Dean and I also attended a roundtable event sponsored by the San Diego Hunger Coalition. During the roundtable, which was attended by both Congresswoman Sara Jacobs and Congressman Scott Peterson, we heard how the Coalition has advanced their data collection to determine where hunger gaps exist and ensure food is made available to everyone in need. Their passion for feeding hungry people was evident and the work they do is commendable.
Later in the day, we traveled to Chula Vista Middle School which is part of the Sweetwater Union School District. After we visited their school garden (and hen house), the Chef Ann Foundation facilitated a meeting around workforce development, specifically the Healthy School Food Pathway Fellowship Program. This is the first ever national fellowship program for school food operators to develop the skills to lead a scratch cook school food program. One universal theme I hear as I travel around the country is that more people are needed in school nutrition programs. This is definitely a step in the right direction!