Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"Top Chef" Flunks School Food Math

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Bravo's new season of "Top Chef," set in D.C., debuts tomorrow with a big wet kiss for Michelle Obama and her campaign to end childhood obesity. Even Obama's chef, Sam Kass, who has become more and more of a TV presence, gets into the act as a judge for episode No. 2 of the contest June 23, wherein the 17 contestants--all competing for the "Top Chef" designation, plus prize money--are supposed to make a meal with only $2.68, the same amount the federal government gives schools for reimbursable lunches.

The Obama Foodorama blog gushes that this episode "is guaranteed to be loaded with drama, thanks to the astonishingly low budget the chefs, all pros from top-level restaurants, have to work with." Except that $2.68 would be astonishingly high, if that were in fact the amount schools spend on the food they serve to kids in the nation's woefully underfunded cafeteria meals program.

Apparently, the writers at "Top Chef" failed to do their homework where school meal finances are concerned. Only a fraction of that $2.68 federal subsidy actually goes toward purchasing food. The majority is eaten up by labor and overhead. What schools actually spend on the food component of the average lunch is more like $1 or less. And the average school loses 35 cents on every meal it serves.

Makes you wonder what Kass, whose White House title is "Food Initiative Coordinator," was thinking when he agreed to his part in a show the Bravo network is billing as "from the White House to your house." Or doesn't Kass know how school lunch works either?

"The National School Lunch program's funding leaves less than $1 for the cost of food on our kids' plates, and yet it's policies demand that we serve milk, fruit and 650 to 750 calories," said "renegade lunch lady" Ann Cooper. "Feeding children delicious and nutritious food, never mind regional or organic, is tremendously hard on that budget, yet school food professionals all across the country strive hard to do that every day."

Cooper has a suggestion for the "Top Chef" producers: "Perhaps instead of restaurant chefs trying to cook a meal for $2.68, we should have 'Lunch Ladies' competing to showcase what's actually possible when we cook fresh food from scratch for our kids. After that, let's give the professional chefs the USDA commodity food to deal with."


  1. thanks for your blog. i eat it up.

  2. Kristi JorgensonJune 30, 2010 at 6:16 PM

    I thought 2.68 was a pretty high figure...I would love to see the contestants freak out over only having $1! Thanks for the info!