Thursday, March 10, 2011

Vilsack to Lunch Ladies: I Feel Your Pain

Here's some Tom Vilsack trivia I wasn't aware of: The USDA secretary's adoptive mother was a raging alcoholic and prescription drug abuser who, Vilsack says, spent most of her time "in the attic, dealing with her demons."

But Vilsack did have one connection to his mother: somehow she always found a way to make him a brown-bag lunch to take to school--usually a sandwich and a piece of fruit. To some 800 school food professionals and industry representatives, assembled in Washington for a legislative conference, Vilsack said he considers the act of feeding children an endeavor with lifelong consequences.

School food, Vilsack said, is now a matter of national security--vital to maintaining the country's competitive position in the world, and even its military. Lunch ladies can have a lasting impact on the kids they serve--and, by extension, the welfare of the nation.

"Kids need to be well educated, and they can't be well educated unless they are well fed," he said.

Vilsack spoke to members of the School Nutrition Association on Wednesday, along with a panel of officials from the USDA who took questions. School food service directors feel set upon by federal lawmakers and others who would like to dictate the terms for how they do their jobs.

Lately, they have particular issues with a new law that requires them to raise prices, potentially suppressing participation in their meal programs, and sets rules for tons more vegetables, whole grains and foods with dramatically less salt--all of which the federal government declines to pay for other than the measly six cents recently approved by Congress.

Lunch ladies are convinced that vast quantities of those vegetables and whole grains, while busting their banks, will simply end up in the trash, uneaten. A joke currently making the rounds among school food service directors is "out in 10," meaning, they wish they could retire sometime within the next 10 years, before they are required to serve meals with less than half the current salt, food they are convinced children will reject.

The USDA says it has no idea how schools or food service manufacturers will meet the reduced-salt target. But the new guidelines would require schools to match the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which hold that Americans consume far too much sodium, mainly from processed foods.

"I feel your pain," Vilsack told the assembled dietitians, cooks and other school food professionals. "I understand what happens when someone wants to impose on you a set of requirements that just don't fit in the real world."

If what I see visiting my daughter's cafeteria here in the District of Columbia is any indication, they are probably right about "healthy" foods being dumped in lunch room trash cans. One thing that has impressed me most after covering school food issues on a daily basis for more than a year now--more, I suppose, than almost any other journalist in the country--is the enormous gulf between policy making on the national level, and what actually takes place in school cafeterias.

It is certainly a fact that school food service operations, giant food service management companies, and their suppliers in the corporate food industry, have found ingenious ways to translate well-meaning government guidelines into processed junk masquerading as "healthy" school meals.

But it is also true that political leaders and well-intentioned advocates too often are far removed from the daily fray with their policy pronouncements. It's a puzzle why they get so much ink in the press, while the views of our long-suffering cafeteria workers get so little. In the end, the only thing that really matters is not the latest thinking of some pinstriped pol on Capitol Hill, but the food that is actually presented on some 32 million cafeteria trays every day--and whether children actually eat it.

In that sense, the national school meals program, for all its successes, remains a quintessential government endeavor, layered with rules, guidelines, paperwork and accountability requirements. It could hardly be less kid-friendly. Listening to the plaintive questions from so many food workers with first-hand, daily experience in the field, I wonder if it isn't time to re-imagine completely how we feed children in school every day.


  1. This blog just inspired an idea. What if, for a year (or even a month), the dieticians, politicians and others had to eat lunches based on the dietary guidelines they are thinking of enforcing. I think this could provide a whole new outlook. Let's face it, adults are just as picky about food as kids!

    There was also the thought of seasoning without salt. There are so many other seasionings that, while they don't always take the place of salt can add flavor and fun to a meal while remaining healthy.

  2. Better yet would be to convene all those pols and experts behind one-way glass to see how a cafeteria full of children react to the meals they are recommending.

    The idea of a salt substitute did come up. Someone said salt costs schools 8 cents per pound, and the next best thing costs 32 cents. (Or maybe they meant per ounce?) Message being, everything else means another added expense.

  3. I prepares food for a preschool in accordance with a federal reimbursement program (CACFP). The program requires 1/2 a cup of fruit and/or vegetables per child per meal and I find the children often eat far more then the minimum servings the federal government requires. If you make the vegetables appealing and delicious you might be amazed how much children will eat. The real problem is the reimbursement rates that have to cover food, salaries, benefits etc

    I do not know if my lunches adhere to the lower salt requirements of the new school lunch guidelines. At least they are not as high as processed foods.