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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 12/ 7/2010

Will pennies improve school lunches?

By Tim Carman

Ann Cooper in Boulder, Colo. (Kirsten Boyer Photography)

Given all the applause that accompanied House passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act last week, you’d have thought Congress had just mandated public schools to prepare meals using only ingredients plucked from local farmers markets.

The bill, which has passed Congress and awaits President Obama’s signature, has been widely praised from all corners, from nutritionists to Michelle Obama, whose Let’s Move campaign takes aim at childhood obesity. These supporters are thrilled that the bill will expand the number of low-income children in school lunch programs, aim to eliminate junk foods and improve nutritional standards, and raise the federal reimbursement rate higher than inflation for the first time since 1973.

But once you look past all the self-congratulatory rhetoric, what will this law actually do once put into effect? Likely very little, if you listen to the people who have been working to improve school lunches for years.

“We didn’t get to this place overnight,” says chef Ann Cooper, a.k.a. the Renegade Lunch Lady, who has helped overhaul lunch programs at two school districts. “We’re not going to solve it overnight.”

Advocates say the problems that plague the national school lunch program are too systematic to solve with mere pennies, which is essentially what the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will throw at the issue. For schools that can prove they’re in compliance with the new nutritional guidelines – which may not even be issued in their final form for another three years – the feds will bestow an extra 6 cents per meal to the school.

To Cooper’s way of thinking, those extra 6 cents mean that she can buy a quarter of an apple for each meal in the Boulder Valley (Colo.) School District, where she is the director of nutrition services. Cooper has been slowly transforming the lunch program at the 48 schools in the Boulder Valley district, replacing chicken nuggets with roasted chicken and canned fruits and frozen vegetables with fresh fruits and salad bars. She figures she spends 25 cents on a single apple – at least today. Who knows what food prices will be like in three years?

“When you get down to it, 6 cents is not a whole lot,” says Cooper. “Ten times 6 cents isn’t going to cover” the new nutritional guidelines recommended by the Institute of Medicine, the independent “health arm” of the National Academies.

Much has already been written about Congress’ “unfunded mandate” to provide children with more nutritious meals in schools. The National School Boards Association has been particularly vocal about this point, saying that it will actually cost school districts an additional 11 to 25 cents to cover the Institute of Medicine’s nutritional recommendations, which call for increasing the minimum amounts of fruits and vegetables as well as for weekly requirements for “dark green and orange vegetables.” NSBA says the new nutritional standards will just widen the gap between what schools pay to provide free meals and the federal reimbursement rates.

What’s lost in this money debate, however, is a larger potential problem: Will these new nutritional guidelines (whenever they’re issued) and extra money (funded, incidentally, with money swiped from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which used to be simply known as the food stamps program) actually lead to healthier meals that kids want to eat?

There are a number of hurdles standing between kids and their healthier new lunches. First among them are those proposed nutritional guidelines from the Institute of Medicine. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will seek comments from all pertinent stakeholders, which means that the final guidelines may look different from the ones proposed by the Institute of Medicine. Corporations with a vested interest in selling empty calories to kids will attempt to shape those rules, which could be weakened as a result.

But more likely, says Cooper, is that corporations will simply “find a way to make processed foods fit the guidelines,” just as they do now with chicken nuggets, fruit roll ups, flavored milks and the like.

Just as problematic are the kitchens and the people who staff them in public schools, says Restaurant Eve chef and co-owner Cathal Armstrong, who founded Chefs as Parents, a non-profit group dedicated to remaking school lunch programs. Most school kitchens don’t have the equipment to do much more than store frozen foods and heat up meals in an oven, and even if administrators have somehow retrofitted their school kitchens with more modern equipment, there’s no guarantee that anyone in the kitchen knows how to cook.

As reporter-turned-school-lunch activist Ed Bruske notes, without trained cooks all these new rules for more nutritious meals could merely lead to “tons more stuff thrown in the trash” by picky kids.

Complicating matters further is the USDA’s Schools/Child Nutrition Commodity Program, which provides schools with surplus goods, from canned peas and frozen corn to irradiated beef patties and frozen whole eggs. A USA Today investigation last year revealed that some of the meats didn’t meet the quality and safety standards of fast-food chains. But Cooper says cash-strapped schools can’t afford to wean themselves off the USDA’s Commodity Program, which offers these products at a (current) rate of 19.5 cents per meal, which is over and above the federal reimbursement rate for the school lunch program.

Add all these factors up – the poorly equipped kitchens, the poorly trained staff, and the poor quality foods – and you have school lunches that parents “would be outraged” to see and taste, says Armstrong, who joined the school-food revolution after meeting with Sam Kass, the White House assistant chef and food initiative coordinator. “I wouldn’t feed this to my worst enemy, let alone our children,” Armstrong says.

Most observers say the school lunch system is broken, and the only way to fix it is to rebuild it from the ground up. This is what the iconic Alice Waters has done with the Berkeley Unified School District in California, which has not only improved school lunches (with Cooper’s help) but has also instituted cooking and gardening classes to put children in touch with their food systems and teach them about healthy eating. Likewise, Cooper has rebuilt the lunch program in Boulder, where she retrofitted five school kitchens to serve as the primary cooking facilities for the other schools in the district. She’s also looked at every process, every piece of equipment, and every employee to see how students could be served more efficiently and cost-effectively.

It’s like running a restaurant, says Cooper; you have to look for every cost savings you can. But it’s not like running a restaurant, too. Cooper says she’s had to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring about these changes, which are far from complete.

Closer to home, the District has been on its own mission to improve school meals. Earlier this year, the D.C. Council passed the Healthy Schools Act of 2010, a comprehensive plan that, among other things, will improve nutritional standards, provide an additional 10 cents for each breakfast and lunch served, and establish a farm-to-school program to encourage the use of more local ingredients. Former New York City restaurateur Jeff Mills, now director of food service for the District’s public schools, has even more ambitious plans, including starting gardens at designated schools, much like Waters did with the Edible Schoolyard at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley.

Next up is Armstrong, who says he’s close to signing a contract that will allow his Chefs as Parents group to transform the meals in Alexandria City Public Schools. He’s still not sure what such a transformation will look like, but he suspects it will include new equipment and better-trained chefs. But he knows one thing for certain: Changes won’t happen in a heartbeat.

“It’s taken 30 years to create this disaster,” says Armstrong. “It’s going to take 30 years to fix it.”

By Tim Carman  | December 7, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Food Politics  | Tags:  Tim Carman, nutrition, school lunch  
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When I was in elementary school in Western Maryland in the late 60's/early 70's, we had actual cooks in our cafeteria. They cooked everything from scratch, including baking bread, making pizza dough and roasting turkeys for Thanksgiving. Too bad the food conglomerations have taken over the school lunch program and now use it as a means for creating consumers of fast food and junk.

Posted by: margaret6 | December 7, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

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