Friday, July 9, 2010

Beware Great Expectations for School Food

Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

If improving school food were as easy as writing more creative contract proposals for food vendors, everybody would be doing it, right?

That would seem to be one of the lessons to draw from two pilot meal projects set to begin here in the District of Columbia when school resumes later in August. Each project--one designed around catered meals, the other meals from scratch--would replace the industrially processed convenience foods now provided by the school systems hired food service provider--Chartwells--with meals constructed around hormone- and additive free milk, less fruit juice and more whole fruit, more whole grains, local produce, no high-fructose corn syrup or trans fats.

The outlines of the contract proposals make the meals sound revolutionary. The only drawback is, the vendors are being asked to provide these souped-up meals on the same, miserly budget that's being used to pay Chartwells, and that most schools struggle with to serve decent food to kids.

These days, there is a clamor rising for more stringent standards that would raise the quality of school food. But what most of the public does not understand is that school food service directors are struggling to make ends meet. The average school loses 35 cents on every lunch it serves. Food service directors live in mortal fear of more standards calling for things like more vegetables and whole grains that don't come with additional funding.

The school meal re-authorization legislation currently making its way through Congress, for instance, would provide a six-cent increase to the federal subsidy for lunch--currently $2.68--hardly enough to make any real dent in the problem.

The District of Columbia is one of those rare local jurisdictions that has stepped forward with more funding--more, even, than what federal law makers are offering. Under the "Healthy Schools Act" passed earlier this year by the D.C. Council, the city will provide 10 cents more for school breakfasts, 10 cents more for lunch, and a five-cent bonus for meals that contain locally-produced ingredients.

That could help boost the quality of food in D.C. Schools. But let's not forget that D.C. Public Schools have been running a deficit in food services of some $5 million dollars every year, or around 20 percent of the total food budget. There's nothing in the law that says the schools cannot simply use that extra cash from the city's treasury to pay down their ongoing debt.

There's no way to tell from contract proposals what the food served to kids will really be like. A good illustration of that is to simply peruse the daily school menus that Chartwells publishes online. The meals sounds great. It's only when you visit the cafeteria and see what's actually on kids' trays that you realize they are eating cheap convenience foods mostly reheated from pre-cooked, frozen components made in food factories hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

The only way to tell if there's a food revolution happening in D.C. schools is to show up in the cafeteria and see what kids are eating. And that's where parents can make a huge contribution. In Rome, for instance, parents play an integral role in the school food solution, making regular visits to school kitchens to inspect. Here, parents can insist on accompany their kids in the cafeteria. Take photos. Judge for yourself. Share what you learn.

That will be our objective when school resumes. Go here if you'd like to see a listing of the schools where the two pilot projects will be implemented.

1 comment:

  1. It is said that 99% of success is showing up. I wholeheartedly agree. Parents need to show up, eat the lunch and get involved with school food reform on a local and national level.

    Also note that the toxic school food environment extends well beyond the cafeteria. We must work to change the culture of food in school via education, school gardens that are integrated into core curriculum and more.

    The first step is showing up! I remain hopeful that we can transform the school food environment. Parental and community involvement is key.