By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook
What kind of lunch could you make for $1?
That’s approximately the amount schools have to spend on ingredients, after they pay for labor and overhead, out of the $2.68 the federal government provides for a fully subsidized meal. Most schools lose around 35 cents on every lunch they serve, according to the School Nutrition Association. Yet the US Senate, in agreeing recently to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, which funds school meals, could only bring itself to toss in 6 extra cents out of the vast federal budget. That’s hardly more than what school meal programs receive automatically as a cost of living adjustment.
School kitchens are maintained in a state of perpetual poverty, yet the “lunch ladies” behind the steam tables are expected to perform a miracle every day: Make a meal that’s not only balanced and nutritious, but that also entices kids who’d just as soon lunch on pizza and fries or maybe grab a bag of chips and Gatorade out of a vending machine if their mom didn’t insist they take a lunch from home.
I was reminded of this the other morning while cruising a local farmers’ market. I was hungry and stopped at one vendor for a quick breakfast of an apple. The clerk placed my lovely little Golden Crisp on the scale and announced the price: $1. Imagine that. One apple at the farmers’ market costs about the same as what my daughter’s local elementary school here in the District of Columbia uses to create an entire meal.
The image is important because that apple, and the other fresh produce our local farmers grow, is exactly the kind of food we’re telling Americans they should be eating to keep weight off and stay healthy. First lady Michelle Obama has made fresh fruits and vegetables her personal cause, suggesting in her “Let’s Move” campaign that if we only ate more of these and fewer Pop-Tarts and Pepsis, we might solve our national obesity problem.
But as Americans are exposed to more and more pictures of what schools actually serve in the nation’s cafeterias—through Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution television series, or via blogs like Better DC School Food—that provide graphic documentation of what kids eat when their parents aren’t around, they can’t help but conclude that a feeding program that has been hugely successful for decades battling hunger is now grossly out of sync with our modern image of what constitutes good food.
The yawning disconnect between Michelle Obama’s White House garden and the industrially processed reality that most of the 31 million kids in the federal meals program face every day in the food line poses a couple of profound yet simple questions: What should kids be eating in school? And who’s going to pay for it?
Traveling the country in search of the cutting edge in school food, I’ve found that there are, unfortunately, no consensus answers to those fundamental questions. But while many school districts seem content to serve their students what can only be described as junk, others are making a supreme effort to overcome the seemingly impossible math that grips the subsidized meal program.
Yes, you heard this crusty old reporter right: There’s reason for hope.