The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

School Lunch: Time For A New Model?

August 21st, 2009 · 4 Comments · Posted in food news, kids, Wellness

Is there hope for school lunch?

Is there hope for school lunch?

Sometimes the very best the internet has to offer is overlooked. Take this bloggger’s simple but penetrating question: What do Sasha and Malia eat for lunch at their school?

The question is pertinent because the daughters of President Barack Obama attend a private school here in the District of Columbia–Sidwell Friends–where lunch just might consist of something like lemon herb baked chicken, Tuscan white bean soup, local arugula and fresh herb salad. Probably not the kind of lunch menu you’re used to seeing where your child goes to school. And that’s because Sidwell Friends takes quite a different approach to designing and paying for lunch. They call it “all inclusive,” which means the price of lunch is included in the annual tuition. The food director has free reign to design healthful menus. The kids can eat it or not. What they can’t do is mongrelize the lunch menu with adolescent preferences for junk food like french fries and pizza.

What a contrast to our public system where the food served relies on a paltry federal susidy–raised to $2.68 in the coming year for children who are eligible for free meals. School food service directors are constantly mocked and demonized for using this money to serve tater tots and corn dogs. But the criticism is largely misplaced. Not only are public school lunch programs underfunded, they receive the federal subsidy only for meals they actually serve. Food service personnel work in handcuffs. On the one hand they don’t have enough money to provide fresh, wholesome food on a daily basis, yet on the other they must entice children to actually choose the sub-standard meals being offered in order to be reimbursed.

It’s no wonder that most of the nation’s schools have closed their kitchens and turned to huge food conglomerates and fast food operations to deliver public school meals. Schools across the country are raising the price of lunch just to make ends meet. Yet more often than not school lunches are loaded with cheap carbohydrates, surplus government meats and cheeses and canned fruits and vegetables.

 The pressures on public school lunch programs are so great, the dollars so tight, they’ve come to resemble a third-world black market bazaar, complete with its own commodity trading schemes and nutrition loopholes and calorie fudging mechanisms. The system has morphed into something so warped and inbred it has spawned its own line of hybrid foods. Would you believe apples that taste like bubble gum? Worse than comical, the school lunch program has become a national disgrace.

Other industrialized countries take their food–and the feeding of their children–seriously. Our system is rigged for failure. Congress has a chance to change all that when the school nutrition act comes up for reauthorization in October. Much like the current health care debate, the question hanging over school lunch is whether Congress is really up to the task of meaningful reform, or whether we will just see more of the same creeping incrementalism that has mired school lunch in the status quo for decades.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is supposed to implement updated nutrtion standards for school foods this year. But the job of designing the standards has been farmed out to the National Academy of Sciences, where hearings have been swarmed over by mobs of corporate food lobbyists. This is not a place to look for good nutrition. Consequently, we are not encouraged.

Yet the current atmosphere is said to be full of promise because of the advocacy work of Michelle Obama. With a White House vegetable garden and much talk about child nutrition, the Obamas in just a few months have managed to raise the profile of the healthy food movement to unprecedented heights. Public alarm over rising rates of childhood obesity and diabetes is being felt on Capitol Hill. But while there is pressure for more federal funds for school lunches, a meaningful overhaul of the system has not been articulated. Other than proposing an additional $1 billion for child nutrition in the 2010 budget, the Obamas have not translated their food concerns into actual policy. Not that we’ve heard, anyway.

Here’s what really needs to happen: call it School Lunch Liberation. This is where we design a system for providing nutritious and complete school lunches for all children on a daily basis, then figure out how much it will cost and fund it. It would work just like the “all inclusive” lunch at the private school Sasha and Malia attend. It wouldn’t matter how many poor children attend the school, or how many children actually choose the lunch that is offered. Wholesome meals would be provided to all, regardless of ability to pay, and without the pressure to feed kids the things they like to eat at McDonald’s.

I have no idea how much this would cost. I’m not sure anyone does. The question is whether Americans are willing to foot the bill for true reform of school lunches–to feed kids the healthful food they deserve–and whether Congress has the guts to enact it. Anything less, I’m afraid, is just more of the same: indigestion.

For more great stories about how we are taking back our food system, be sure to check out Fight Back Fridays.

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  • kimsikes

    Ed, count me in.

    My mom has been “cafeteria lady” at an intermediate school in Fairfax County for over a couple decades now. She said when I went to school there (20 years ago) they used to cook everything. Now she has no idea what she’s serving to the kids and they got rid of most of their kitchen equipment. I can’t convince her to change her own diet to local/organic but when I talk about the food she feeds the kids at her school she gets pissed!

    I see things going downhill for us since it seems the crappy food mentality extends way beyond the food. It’s what we feed our brains, how we spend our time, how we entertain ourselves, how we have relationships with the people around us. It all seems to be cheap, dirty and empty.

    So, if you’re proposing we do something about the school lunch program … yes, count me in!

  • megwolff

    Great post. Thanks, Ed.

  • FoodRenegade

    Marion Nestle made a couple good suggestions, too, to help fund an overhaul of the program in which EVERY STUDENT is entitled to a good lunch. She proposed: 1)eliminating the a-la-carte & junk food competition so that more real lunches would be served & the schools have more money to work with, and 2)eliminating the income requirements, thereby doing away with billions of budgetary dollars spent on propping up the bureaucracy that’s in place to ensure the income requirements are met and kids don’t “cheat” the system.

  • Ed Bruske

    Kim, I’ll bet your mom has seen a lot to be depressed about.

    Kristen, eliminating junk food from schools has been pending for years in the form of legislation introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa. Still no action on that yet. We’ll see whether Congress will find the money and political will to make school lunch universally free.