Tutto Per Qualita: Innovation in Rome’s School Meal System

by Toni Liquori EDD, MPH; Program in Nutrition, Teachers College, Columbia University

Imagine sitting down to a school lunch of pasta and lentil soup, local chard with lemon, and freshly baked bread. In the U.S. and around the world, communities are rethinking what we feed our children. The recent changes to the school meal system in Rome, Italy, are arguably the most far-reaching, addressing the social and nutritional health of the child, along with taste and a clear philosophy of environmental stewardship. If it is not organic, most food served in Roman schools is seasonally and locally/regionally sourced and/or fairly traded, and is always cooked from scratch — 140,000 lunches every day, plus a midmorning snack. This truly green — and delicious — revolution in Rome’s school meal system was brought about in 2001 by School Food Director Silvana Sari, with support from Rome’s Mayor and the Counselor of Education.

Recognizing that there are differences in regulations and contracting between the U.S. and Italy — not to mention profound differences in food culture — Rome’s transition is still an important one to watch. Sari negotiated a major change in how contracts are arranged with school food providers and a strict system of compliance monitoring to create the Tutto per Qualit — All for Quality — procurement principles.

School food contracts are not awarded simply you to the lowest bidder, but to the provider offering the “best value.” Low purchase price is emphasized, but food quality and food service infrastructure are also important criteria. Food quality considerations include place of origin, food miles traveled, organic production, fair trade, and products from specially-designated regions (e.g., Parmesan cheese must be exclusively from the parmigiano reggiano region). Infrastructure improvements include kitchen and dining room upgrades, training and education for staff and teachers, and a well-organized and fully qualified food service staff.

By combining the multiple criteria of purchase price, food quality, and infrastructure in its “best value” approach to meals, Roman schools are able to offer nutritious, culturally-appropriate meals for its children. All children are able to enjoy these meals thanks to state subsidies to low-income families. At approximately five dollars per child, Rome’s the daily purchase price is almost double what the U.S. spends on school lunch. However, when we include the U.S. school breakfast reimbursement as well — considering that Rome’s five dollars also includes a midmorning snack — the cost difference between the two models shrinks tremendously.

But what are we including when we consider “cost”? Many of the costs of school meals are currently borne by society in the U.S., in the form of indirect costs such as long-term health-care for rising rates of childhood obesity. When we factor in these very real but externalized costs, the U.S. lowest purchase price model certainly costs more than the Italian best value model. School lunch is a huge investment — more than $7 billion in the U.S. — why not direct to this money to programs that promote child health, strengthen local economies, and protect the environment? Perhaps Rome’s experience will help to open up some new ways of thinking — and the possibility of our children truly enjoying their school lunch.

Resources on innovative school meal programs:

This article was originally published in the Fall 2006 issue of Community Food Security News.