The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

“Healthy Schools”: Where’s The Money?

December 15th, 2009 · 5 Comments · Posted in kids, Wellness

How much are we willing to spend on healthful school meals?

How much are we willing to spend on healthful school meals?

With all the complaining about bad school food and kids becoming obese, it’s the rare local government that actually steps forward to pay for improving school food beyond what the federal government subsidizes, currently $2.68 per meal, an amount experts agree is woefully inadequate to serve truly healthful food.

The “Healthy Schools” legislation introduced last week in the D.C. Council is somewhat of an exception. By eliminating sodas and sugary beverages from schools, and embracing the idea of sustainable, local produce in school meals, the proposal in one fell swoop catapults the District into the ranks of school districts at the forefront of the good food movement. In addition, it mandates free breakfast for all public school students, and offers to pay an additional five cents for meals containing local, sustainably raised fruits and vegetables.

This is a bill Michelle Obama could have written. Yet the precise sourcing of funds for these measures is left vague–proof again that it’s far easier to regulate what can be served in schools than to pay for improvements, especially in the middle of a recession when the bottom is dropping out of municipal budgets. In the case of funding local produce, for instance, the legislation only commits to “whenever possible.” Still, this is a great place to start a public conversation on what the future holds for the 60,000 children who attend the District’s public schools, the largest feeding program in the nation’s capitol.

Over the last five days, I’ve been writing in detail about the main features of the landmark legislation (here, here, here, here and here), as introduced by Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D). Here are some of the other highlights of what this bill would do:

* Allow students to eat breakfast in the classroom in schools where more than 40 percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-price meals.

* Require a minimum 30 minutes for lunch.

* Eliminate trans-fats and introduce specific nutrition standards, including weekly portions of vegetables, over a four-year period.

* Regulate the amount of sodium in school food, but still allow more than the most recent USDA standards for commodity vegetables.

* Continue to allow snack and junk food, but in managed portion sizes.

* Continue to allow vending machines outside school lunch rooms, but no longer stocked with sodas, sports drinks, ice teas or other sugary beverages, including “fuit juices” with minimal actual fruit.

* Prohibit “foods” containing more than 35 percent sugar by weight, but continue to allow flavored milks some are now calling “sodas in drag,” as well as 100 percent fuit juices that are dense with sugar by virtue of the fructose they contain.

* Encourage schools to serve minimally processed agricultural products that are sustainably grown  on local farms, and without the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics and hormones.

* Establish a school gardens program to aid in garden construction and incorporate gardens into school curricula.

* Eliminate Styrofoam and other non-recyclable materials from school lunch rooms and report on recycling efforts.

* Begin a pilot composting program for school food waste.

* Require minimum levels of physical exercise in grades K through 8.

* Establish “wellness centers” in the city’s high schools.

* Nutrition standards, including ban on sugary beverages, would not apply at sporting events. But foods not meeting the standards could not be offered as prizes or incentives in schools.

So where might the sticking point for this legislation be? For starters, it’s not exactly clear what the fiscal impact might be of making breakfast free to all students. Are there many school breakfast eaters who are not already fully subsidized? And would a free breakfast draw more students to school who might otherwise have to pay for their meal? First, it would fully cover children who now are only eligible for partial reimbursement. And it might attract students who currently are near to but not quite qualifying for free or partially subsidized breakfast. But the true numbers are anyone’s guess.

Also, the cost of providing an additional five cents for meals containing locally grown produce cannot be known. The actual purchase of that produce may depend on the state of the overall schools food budget and the lack of a local agriculture infrastructure geared to providing produce for tens of thousands of school children on a regular basis. That’s definitely still something to be worked out.

Most good food advocates contend that school food budgets should be substaintially larger. And perhaps schools should be using an entirely different business model. Rather than being forced to offer foods that entice kids into selecting meals from the federally subsidized menu, or buying “competitive” junk foods from vending machines to support the food budget, schools ideally would operate like Sidwell Friends, the private school the Obama children attend. There, meals are included with the annual tuition, and the kids eat what’s served–or not.

As the parent of a 9-year-old who attends a D.C. public elementary school, my preference would be that schools ditch junk food and vending machines altogether. As regular readers of this blog know, I do not endorse the idea that fat–or necessarily too many calories–is our greatest dietary evil. I think the type of calories we consume is indeed important, and that the real culprit behind childhood obesity and diabetes is too many carbohydrates, especially cheap, refined carbohydrates. To me, it makes no sense to fixate on the amount of natural fat in milk, yet allow chocolate-flavored milk in school that contains nearly as much sugar as Coca-Cola.

If I had my druthers, we would remove all junk and snack foods from public schools–vending machines, too.

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.


  • mossgathers

    What would be the benefit of allowing kids to eat in the classrooms? I can see teachers having fits over that one unless they also allow space for dining tables in the rooms. Eating at your desk is inappropriate for adults and children and doesn’t encourage mindful eating.

  • Ed Bruske

    MG, I think this is one of those things that child nutrition and hunger specialists advocate. I’m embarrassed to say I am not really up to speed on this particular issue. However, I do know that kids arriving late did occasionally take breakfast in my daughter’s classroom. Perhaps it’s another means of making sure that kids have every opportunity to start the day with something nutritious in their belly.

  • kathrynbaer

    You’re asking an excellent question—one that occurred to me when I first read about the Cheh bill. But I think there are a couple of misunderstandings here.

    First, unless I’m much mistaken, the D.C. public school system already has a universal breakfast program. What the Cheh legislation would do is move the program into the classrooms of schools that serve many low-income students. It would cost more only to the extent that meals cost schools more than the federal government will reimburse. More on this below.

    According to a new report by the Food Action and Research Center, fewer than half of the children in D.C. public schools who get free or reduced-price lunches also participate in a school breakfast program. This is common nationwide and probably due to a number of barriers. In-class breakfasts are a good way of addressing them. For more on this, see my posting at

    Second, schools already operate according to a model very similar to what you describe as Sidwell Friends’. They offer food choices that kids can eat—or not—as they see fit. I can’t see how the fact that the meals are federally-subsidized makes any difference—except, of course, that the meals must meet certain nutrition standards and that they cost the schools less. The higher nutrition standards the Cheh bill would establish—or something close—will almost certainly be adopted at the federal level.

    However, the federal subsidies are undoubtedly too low. What we need to do, I think, is get behind higher funding levels and the extension of free in-school meals to children up to 185% of the federal poverty line. The latter wouldn’t cost the District a dime if it were part of the reauthorized Child Nutrition Act.

    In short, the costs of the Cheh legislation would be substantially less if energy were put behind improving school meal programs at the federal level. Her bill strikes me as aspirational. Not the sort of the thing our local government can—or should—adopt in these difficult economic times. Recall that, at this point, D.C. can’t even provide shelter for all the homeless families that need it.

  • joni_pod

    Eating snacks in the classroom is fairly common practice on test days, when educators want to make sure children are at their best. By incorporating food into the course of the school day, we can make sure all children have an opportunity to eat, not just those whose parents bring them early. There is also sometimes stigma around eating breakfast at school, because it is often only eaten by children who are eligible for free breakfast. Eating in the classroom neutralizes that.

  • Ed Bruske

    Kathryn, y ou’re correct about the breakfasts served by D.C. Public Schools. The biggest impact might fall on charter schools, which operate independent of the DCPS. I don’t know how many students would be eligible for free breakfasts in charter schools who aren’t getting them now. As for lunch, there is a huge difference between the federally subsidized program in public schools and the meals paid with tuition at Sidwell Friends. Public schools receive federal funds based on the number of meals they actually serve. They are under incredible pressue to entice kids to eat those meals or lose lots of money. That’s why you see many school cafeterias taking advantage of every possible loophole in the nutrition standards so they can repeatedly offer things like french fries, pizza, tater tots–stuff kids really go for. The huge benefit of the funding structure at Sidwell Friends is that the cafeteria managers don’t have to worry about reimbursement, so they can fashion menus that actually benefit the kids. I’m guessing they also have more money to work with.

    Joni, thanks for that clarification. It makes perfect sense, and it corresponds to the kind of things I saw at my daughter’s charter school where I was a volunteer reader in the mornings and often saw kids eating breakfast in the classroom.