The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Dropping the I-Bomb On Schools

May 29th, 2009 · 5 Comments · Posted in kids, politics

Kids love to make healthy food

Kids love to make healthful food

I got laid off this week.

Well, it’s just the last two weeks of my food appreciation classes at a private elementary school here in the District of Columbia that I’ll be missing. Apparently they’re tightening belts even in places where tuition is around the same as my mortgage payment, and with only two weeks of school left on the calendar.

It just brings home to me in a personal way how food for kids often is expendable in the adult world of high finance. And that’s an important lesson to keep in mind at a time when Congress is taking up re-authorization of the National School Lunch Program, a program that’s more than 60 years old and now serves some 30 million needy children every day at a cost of $9 billion.

Somehow, despite all those billions spent, we still can’t decide whether the purpose of this program is to bring first-rate nutrition into the public schools, or merely fill the bellies of kids who might not otherwise be able to afford a meal. Are federally funded lunches supposed to be a universal gift of good food for all children, or merely a convenient  outlet for the nation’s agricultural surplus? The federal allotment, while it may sound huge, only provides $2.57 per lunch, and that doesn’t cover the cost of lunchroom staff or the electric bill.

Now parents groups complain that too much junk is being served to kids in school. There’s a certain amount of irony in those complaints, because the reason schools have resorted to fast food and vending machines is because state and local governments won’t pay the extra money needed to ensure that healthful meals are served in schools. (Obviously, the federal contribution was never intended to cover the entire bill. Should it?)

Enter the embattled school cafeteria manager who must make some difficult choices. In order to keep enough kids moving through her lunch line, entitling the school to federal reimbursements, she must offer the kids things they like. But the menu must also fit within her tight budget. It must also conform with certain nutrition standards.

It’s a fine line, but guess where the menu ends up?

Pizza, french fries, hamburgers, macaroni and cheese, corn dogs. These are the kinds of offerings that entice children into the lunch line. Is the meal a bit short on calories? Just coat the chicken with a little breading. Vending machines beckon with chips, sodas and candy, boosting the revenues needed to keep the lunch operation afloat. Big food service companies are hired for their economies of scale, and because they don’t pay workers nearly as much. Pretty soon Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Subway are serving their brand of lunch to our kids.

And then the rules–known as nutrition standards–get stretched to accommodate the more popular fast food menus. We don’t look anymore at all the french fries and pizzas the kids are eating every day, but rather calculate the choices they were offered over the entire week. Anything to get this beast into its cage.

The end result, of course, is a nutritional abomination full of cheap carbohydrates that are making kids fatter and fatter. Our school lunch program–quite literally–is an insulin bomb that we drop every day into the midst of unsuspecting children.

We should face the truth and put the blame where it belongs: Taxpayers simply don’t want to pay for healthy food. Or politicians don’t have the guts to tell voters what the true cost might be of a program that actually engages children in the process of choosing to eat more healthfully.

Maybe Alice Waters is right. Maybe what this country needs is a top-to-bottom overhaul of the way we feed kids in school. Is it merely a matter of money? We pay less than $3 a meal, the French spend almost $9, the Japanese more than $20. But attitudes must change as well. After working with kids for the last three years, I can attest that they will eat healthy food if they know where their food comes from, if they are involved in the preparation, if they are shown why some food is healthy and other food isn’t, if they are enaged in the process.

It’s still axiomatic: you get what you pay for. I know the kids would come around if we made this more about them, and less about trying to squeeze good food out of not enough dollars. The only question is, do adults have the will?

Read more great stories about how we are taking back our food system at Fight Back Fridays.

Leave a Comment

Please note: Your comment may have to wait for approval to be published to ensure that we don't accidentally publish "spam". We thank you for understanding.


  • megwolff

    Wow Ed. Sorry about your job. Those kids are sure going to miss you (and you them). 🙁

    I went to the site that you suggested and will definitely add it to my blog.

  • FoodRenegade

    This really gets me going. Our school lunch program is in such shambles. (But, so too is most of our educational system.)

    As a parent, I simply choose to opt out. We opt out of the dominant food system. We opt out of the dominant educational system.

    (Of course, when I opt out of the dominant food system, my food dollars get diverted to local farmers and businesses I’m glad to support. When I opt out of the education system, my property taxes STILL go to the public schools that are an affront to the word “education” while I pay additional dollars to pay for the REAL cost of educating my children at home. So while opting out of the dominant food system may actually CHANGE something, opting out of the dominant education system only affects me and my little family.)

    Yet, I’m glad we have the freedom to do that.

    Thanks for sharing this post in today’s Fight Back Fridays carnival.

    (AKA FoodRenegade)

  • Ed Bruske

    Meg, it’s not so tragic. I’m invited back in the fall. But it does make you think….

    Kristen, I don’t plan on spending time in prison any time soon, but I’m helping to pay for the local slammer with my tax dollars. I think we all pay for things that may not benefit us individually, but are perceived as a societal good. Public schools would fit into that category. I am a product of public schools. So is my wife. So is my daughter. However, I can understand why some people want to opt out and teach their kids at home. Believe me, the thought has crossed our minds. Meanwhile, the school lunch thing just has not gotten the clear mission–and funding–that it needs. Time for everyone to step up to the plate, if we care anything at all about what our kids eat when they’re not at home.

    Brett, thanks for the link. Great photos.

  • Joanna

    Sorry about the job – you were obviously doing great work there, so I’m glad you’ll be back in the autumn. The school lunch thing is just as much of an issue in the UK in our state schools – sad that we are so short-sighted about something that matters as much as feeding children well.

    I’ll look forward to hearing more about teaching cookery skills to the young later on in the year