By Lisa Suriano
Several months ago I came across a short documentary featuring Rome, Italy’s incredibly progressive school food program. I was impressed by what I learned from the documentary and hungry to learn more. Fortunately, I had already planned a trip to visit some family in Rome, so I pursued an interview with Paolo Agnostini, the Head Nutritionist for the Municipality of Rome and a key player in the transformation of their school food program.
In the weeks before our meeting, Mr. Agnostini provided me with the program’s facts and figures, caterer and vendor contract guidelines and the overarching goals and ideals that brought this program to life. First the facts:
- 150,000 total meals daily
- 740 public schools
- 96% from-scratch meals/4% portable meals
- €5.03 ($6.56) average cost of a school meal (includes a complete lunch and a
- 70% of the ingredients are organic (The switch to using organic food incurred a €0.16 food cost increase.)
- €5.03 includes all food ingredients, labor and system monitoring costs but not tax.
- The food service programs are managed by private catering companies contracted by the municipality.
- Two independent companies are contracted by the municipality to monitor the ingredients and operations in the schools.
Although I did not obtain a percentage of locally procured products, I did learn a great deal about how local foods were prioritized in the program. When reviewing bids from food providers, points were given to those contractors that could best guarantee the use of the following:
A Bio-dedicated food chain: “foods that were organically grown coming from farm businesses working exclusively in organic food-chains.”
Protected Denomination of Origin (PDO) & Protected Geographic Indication (PGI) products: food products that are typical of the Lazio Region in which Rome is located. These included Mozzarella di bufala PDO (buffalo milk mozzarella-cheese), Pecorino Romano PDO (sheep cheese), Ricotta Romana PDO, Beef PGI (slow growing old breeds: Chianina, Marchigiana, Romagnola.)
Guaranteed freshness produce: meaning no more than 3 days between harvest and intake. Companies are required to state the name of the harvesting farm, the harvesting date and the name of any food-processing center on the produce package.
Meat freshness: Meats must be vacuumed packed and delivered with 4 days of packaging.
In order to further support the ideal of using locally grown produce the Municipality utilized the following two principals in the menu and recipe development:
Seasonality: All menu items must only include ingredients that are harvested in Lazio during that specific time period.
Recipe Variety: Two 9-week menu cycles were created, one for the winter and one for the spring. Teams of professional chefs and dieticians were hired by the city and charged with creating seasonal and student-approved menus. A total of 160 recipes were developed and implemented. Schools varied their starting point in the menu cycles to allow for sufficient supplies of produce. (Agnostini called the recipe development process “key to the program’s success.” He also said that dissemination of the recipes to all schools had been unnecessarily difficult and, in retrospect, should have been more organized and efficient.)
The precise and stringent nature of these requirements is indicative of the strong ideals that shaped Rome’s school meal program. The main goals of the program were to:
Upgrade food quality
Ensure food safety
Provide nutrient balance
Combat childhood obesity
Develop sustainable production
Regulate public contracts
The €5 a day that it takes Rome to accomplish these goals is significantly more than what is being invested here in the U.S. However, this quote that underscores the list of goals explains how Romans have justified this expenditure. “The principle of cheapness must be subordinated to criteria inspired by social requirements, as well as by healthcare, environmental conservation and sustainable development.” In support of this statement Agnostini also said during our meeting, “It is more money to cure people for nutrition related diseases than to prevent them.”
While those of us advocating for improved school food fervently share this belief, unfortunately, there are many people who do not consider nutrition a major priority. I know this lack of concern and resistance firsthand; therefore, I was very curious how Rome managed to overcome the naysayers.
Mr. Agnostini agreed with me that effective change in school cafeterias only happens with a community effort. The Municipality knew that competitive foods would threaten the success of their program. To combat this they banned ALL outside food from the school buildings. This extended to parents not being allowed to send their children with lunches or snacks from home. This was a bold move to take and it was not entirely well received. Some parents loudly protested this mandate. However, Agnostini said, “They were not the majority. We held to our rule.” It was not until the European Union publicly recognized and praised Rome for its efforts that the protest noise quieted.
Having read about the nutrition education initiatives that Rome implemented, I wanted to know how teachers had responded to the changes. Agnostini said, “Children must know where food comes from. It is best to cultivate or cook but this is not always possible. So they must learn and understand through lessons. Teachers need to be motivated. Most will not be by the idea that eating well is important but by money or ease of operations.” Opting for the latter, Rome aided teachers in incorporating nutrition education lessons by providing them with materials, activities, and tools. (This is precisely what I have done with the Veggiecation program.)
Agnostini continued to stress the importance of teacher involvement and support when making school food changes. He said, “More important than the children’s reaction was the teacher’s reaction. Students listen and respond to how teachers react to foods.” He gave me a few anecdotes about how if teachers said they did not like something, the children would not eat it. One vegetable in particular had to be eliminated from the program because despite the students initially enjoying it at lunch, teacher’s balked at the smell it emitted when it cooked was.
Towards the end of our time together I asked Mr. Agnostini what he envisioned for the future of Rome’s school meal program. His response surprised me and slightly disheartened me. He informed me that the political tides had changed within the Municipality. The party that had initiated the city’s school food revolution was no longer in power and the current administration did not value sustainable food development in the same way. He said because of this he was concerned there might a regression due to reallocation of funds and a change in priorities. What a shame it would be for this to happen. Politics created the problem of poor school nutrition and then politicians worked to fix it. How unfortunate it would be have this cycle repeat itself .
Lastly, I asked him to share any advice to those of us in the U.S. advocating for school food change. He simply said, “It will be difficult but you must keep walking forward.”
Lisa Suriano caters school meals and is the developer of the curriculum-based lunch program Veggication.