Saturday, July 10, 2010

What School Food Dollars Really Buy

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

A recent post at the Ethicurean blog reminds everyone that only a fraction of the $2.68 the federal government provides for a subsidized school lunch actually goes toward food. According to a 2008 study [PDF] released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a bit less than 40 percent--or $1.07--of that amount is spent on meal ingredients. Schools spend 44.4 percent of their budget on labor and 16.1 percent on "other expenses."

What kind of meal do you think you could make with $1?

Those figures are relevant to the pilot meal programs we've been analyzing this week. The request for proposals [RFPs] published by D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) call for vastly improved food in the two projects, one to deliver "portable" meals, the other to provide meals cooked from scratch.

But there's a further distinction to be made between school districts providing meals for their students and hiring contractors to make the food. Schools are non-profit entities. Contractors are in business to make a profit. So in addition to dealing with the math outlined above, the vendors who ostensibly will be fulfilling the contract requirements of these two pilot projects also will be looking to pocket some cash.

Those profits represent funds that could be used to improve the quality of the food kids ultimately see on their trays. If you look around the country, you will see that the most progressive public school meal programs are not centered around contractors, but are run by school districts that make their own food.

After Michelle Rhee took office as schools chancellor she essentially announced that D.C. schools were incompetent to run their own food program. DCPS' food service operation had racked up $30 million in deficits over three years. Declaring that serving food was not a "core competency" of public schools, Rhee hired Chartwells, a giant corporate food service company, to take over.

Now, after hiring a new in-house food service director, D.C. schools are indicating they want something better than the industrially processed convenience foods Chartwells has been serving. Is the answer simply hiring a different contractor? Or will schools in the nation's capitol eventually figure out how to turn $1 into a decent school meal on their own?

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