Guest Op-Ed: My Thoughts on Boston Public School Meals

By Mayor Michelle Wu

I’ll never forget that moment of wondrous epiphany years ago, when, still new to Boston, I tried my first apple picked from the tree at a local orchard. The pucker of tangy sweetness and juicy crispness flooded my senses with delight, then shock. How could I have lived for so many years thinking those other apples were as good as it gets?  

The apples of my childhood were textbook Red Delicious picked from big piles at the grocery store and coated in that waxy film that didn’t quite wash off—slightly squishy, slightly sweet, consistently deep red and bland.

When I was pregnant for the first time, poor dad-to-be drove through torrential rains to the orchard to satisfy my craving for farm-fresh apples. In the years after, it’s become a treasured family tradition to visit the orchard and load up for the fall.

This year, apple-picking season and back-to-school are directly connected: for the first time, all apples served in Boston Public Schools lunches will be fresh and locally grown. 

For many of our students, school meals are providing up to half of their daily calories. Guaranteeing universal free school meals ensures a reliable source of nutrition, destigmatizes free lunch, and saves families cost and stress. We’ve also made strides in ensuring culturally appropriate foods, including kosher and halal options, and a range of options that reflects the rich cultural diversity of our school communities.

But focusing on food justice means taking it beyond affordable and accessible. Good food should be nutritious, delicious, local, and sustainable too. As a City Councilor, I worked with a big coalition to draft and pass Boston’s Good Food Purchasing Ordinance, which requires any City spending on food to prioritize nutrition, local production, fair labor, animal welfare, environmental sustainability, and equitable purchasing. Now fully implemented and integrated with Boston Public Schools food purchasing contracts, Good Food Purchasing is delivering real impact this school year.

This year’s BPS menus will include more than 20 local products grown in New England, representing more than 10% of our food budget as we move quickly to reach our goal of 30% local spend.

For these meals, all 353,875 pounds of apples served in BPS schools will be New England grown, from eight different farms or farm collectives. More than half of the 1,320,000 whole apples in school meals will come from Pine Hill Orchards in Colrain, Massachusetts, with the rest grown from JP Sullivan growers collective, Mountain Orchard, and Blue Hills Orchard. And another 1,875 pounds of sliced apples will come from Plain View Farm, Farm Fresh, Three River Farmers Alliance, and Lyman Orchards.

Buying local means flexing our spending power to reshape food supply chains and strengthen farmers following healthy growing practices right in our region. Cutting down the shipping distance by buying local also attacks emissions from one of the most harmful industries for climate change.

Right now, 86 of our 125 BPS schools are cooking healthy and fresh meals from scratch, compared to just 30 schools cooking last year. By November, that number will be up to 108 schools as we ramp up staffing. The other schools that don’t yet have kitchens are served by our wonderful local food partner, a Black-owned, employee cooperative business based right in Roxbury, City Fresh Foods, who also provide the after-school snacks and other food options at some of the scratch-cooking schools as well.

By keeping all our dollars as local as possible, we’re prioritizing nutrition, supporting our local economy, and building wealth directly in our communities.

Our office of food justice has an ambitious agenda to expand access, opportunity, and connection through food. We’ll keep growing these efforts throughout Boston, from neighborhood farmers markets and restaurants, to BPS schools and the local farms in our good food purchasing ecosystem.

Michelle Wu is the Mayor of Boston.

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