NY Times: Bringing back cooking to school kitchens

Kim Severson of The New York Times has a good article in today’s paper about the growing desire to serve students scratch-cooked food rather than defrosted pre-packaged lunches:

More than 80 percent of the nation’s districts cook fewer than half their entrees from scratch, according to a 2009 survey by the School Nutrition Association.

The slide didn’t happen overnight. As many American families stopped cooking and began to rely on prepared and packaged food, so did the schools. It became cheaper to cut skilled kitchen labor, eliminate raw ingredients and stop maintaining kitchens.

“In school food 30 or 40 years ago, they roasted turkeys and did all of these things,” said Eric Goldstein, the chief executive of the Office of School Support Services.

“We all recognize we want to be scratch cooking again, but we have some challenges to get there.”

In San Francisco Unified (and many other districts), those challenges include aging, ill-equipped kitchens in schools — and many schools without kitchen facilities at all. People have begun talking about adding funding for a central kitchen–probably upwards of $20 million to build and equip–to the next school bond issue proposal, but that’s somewhat premature until we can figure out what kind of facility we need, the kind of staffing it will require, and what resources would be needed to deliver and serve centrally-cooked fresh meals at every school. Studying that issue would cost money (maybe $50,000) that I can’t justify spending in this budget environment — not when it means taking resources away from the classroom.  There is a group of parents and advocates working on getting a grant to do such a study, however, so email me at rachel “at” rachelnorton.com if you are interested in joining this work.

But the biggest challenge is utterly ignored in today’s NY Times piece: the woefully small reimbursement school districts get for serving free- or reduced-price lunches to students — now set at $2.68 per meal nationwide. It’s awfully hard to serve anyone a fresh, nutritious meal for $2.68, particularly with union labor, and particularly in high-cost areas like San Francisco. Some groups are campaigning for a dollar a meal increase in the reimbursement rate, but realistically, we’d need something like $5 per meal to serve fresh, wholesome food cooked locally.

Would it make sense to raise the price of our meals to $5 now and eat (pardon the pun) the differential between the Federal reimbursement rate and the cost of the meal? Well, more affluent districts have done that, mainly because their small population of free- or reduced-price students make that particular budget encroachment a manageable amount of money. And many of those same districts resort to the “meal of shame” when students who haven’t qualified for a free- or reduced-price meal can’t produce the money to pay full price — we have rightly decided NOT to single out children who are hungry but can’t pay for lunch, but that costs us more. So it doesn’t make financial sense for us to raise our meal prices because of the huge amount we’d have to subsidize to do it, and without the central kitchen and other resources in place to actually provide a meal that parents would be willing to pay $5 for.

Update: I ran this post by the incomparable Dana Woldow, who knows everything there is to know about school food. I added some edits (above), and her comments (below) on the idea of raising the paid price of a meal to $5 and “eating” the difference:

SUICIDE! About 85% of the kids eating in the caf are free or reduced; of the approx. 15% who are on paid status, only about 40% ever pay. So it would mean HUGE deficits for SNS that would make the current $2.8 million look like chump change. Plus even though presumably the scratch cooked lunch would be tastier, there is no guarantee that kids who currently bring lunch from home would switch to getting lunch at school.


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