Tag Archives: national school lunch program

Cafeteria boycott is the wrong target

I just came across this news story from Boston, about a planned cafeteria boycott by students at suburban Medford High School. Students contend that the lunches they are served are unhealthy and that they are served meat that supermarkets are not allowed to sell.

The district Superintendent disputes these claims, according to the report:

Federal law requires the district to take more precautions than commercial markets when preparing and serving food, and lunch menu selections have less sodium, less fat, and fewer additives than the same items at the grocery store.

And, he said, the menu offers no fried food, no snack-cakes or other unhealthy desserts, and very few processed meats.

For $2.85, students get their choice of a pizza, salad, hot entree, or sandwich to accompany a fruit and a vegetable, he said.

This sounds a lot like the menu here in San Francisco, where we have eliminated high-fat entrees like corn dogs and taco pockets, and replaced them with meals that are lower in fat, featuring whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables. Still, our students also complain about the quality of the food (and, ironically, about the small portion sizes — shades of Annie Hall.)   The meal prices in Medford are comparable to ours as well (our full-price high school meal is $3).

Could the food be better? Yes, but not without significant increases in funding. That’s why it’s frustrating to see student advocacy like the Medford boycott aimed at the wrong target. I don’t know much about Medford, but if it’s anything like SFUSD, such an effort would only end up hurting students — because it would result in wasted food (which means wasted money that otherwise could be spent on something else). Additionally, in SFUSD too many of our students have no other reliable source of nutritious food. For those students, participating in a boycott simply means they are forgoing needed calories.

So if a boycott is a lousy idea, what steps could students or others take to improve the quality of school nutrition in SFUSD? Right now there is a golden opportunity to increase the funding that districts in high-cost areas (like San Francisco) receive to serve meals to students, as the Child Nutrition Act will be reauthorized in 2010. Click here for information (including sample letters) on writing to members of Congress urging them to increase the amount of funding for student nutrition.

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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.