Stars Aligning on School Lunches
ANN COOPER has made a career out of hammering on the poor quality of public school food. The School Nutrition Association, with 55,000 members, represents the people who prepare it.
Imagine Ms. Cooper’s surprise when she was invited to the association’s upcoming conference to discuss the Lunch Box, a system she developed to help school districts wean themselves from packaged, heavily processed food and begin cooking mostly local food from scratch.
“All of a sudden I am not the fringe idiot trying to get everyone to serve peas and carrots that don’t come out of a can, like that’s the most radical idea they have ever heard of,” she said.
The invitation is a small sign of larger changes happening in public school cafeterias. For the first time since a new wave of school food reform efforts began a decade ago, once-warring camps are sharing strategies to improve what kids eat. The Department of Agriculture is welcoming ideas from community groups and more money than ever is about to flow into school cafeterias, from Washington and from private providers.
“The window’s open,” said Kathleen Merrigan, the deputy secretary of agriculture. “We are in the zone when a whole lot of exciting ideas are being put on the table. I have been working in the field of sustainable agriculture and nutrition all my professional life, and I really have never seen such opportunity before.”
Congress, which will take up the Child Nutrition Act as soon as October, has much to do with this year’s focus on school food. The act, which is reauthorized every five years, provides $12 billion to pay for lunch and breakfast for 31 million schoolchildren.
That the nutritional state of America’s children is a priority for President Obama doesn’t hurt, either. Mr. Obama put an extra $1 billion for child nutrition programs, including school food, in his 2010 budget proposal.
Michelle Obama has made better nutrition for schoolchildren part of her agenda, too, using the White House garden to promote healthier eating and often speaking about the importance of good diets for children, her own included.
Rochelle Davis, who founded the Healthy Schools Campaign in Chicago almost eight years ago, said having support from the White House has made her work easier.
“This is not a nice little niche issue anymore,” she said. “When I talk to people at U.S.D.A., they talk about what the president and first lady want. It matters.”
The Department of Agriculture is expected to upgrade school food nutrition standards this year, many of which haven’t been changed for nearly 15 years. And because many Obama U.S.D.A. appointees are focusing on improving student health through better food, the department has started an aggressive effort to study reform efforts big and small. These include the national farm-to-school program, which is in nearly 9,000 schools, and Food Options for Children in Urban Schools, a nonprofit based in New York that helps the nation’s largest districts change how they buy and prepare food.
Congress seems likely to spend more on school food this year, but just how much is uncertain. Under newly released reimbursement rates for the coming school year, most districts receive $2.68 for each free lunch served to a child who is poor enough to qualify. The rates vary depending on poverty level and region.
That money is the core of most school food budgets. But it does not cover the cost of the lunch, nutrition directors say, so they cannot afford to serve higher-quality food.
As a result, districts rely on processed commodity food from the Department of Agriculture and on extra income from the sale of popular foods like chips, pizza and burritos in what are commonly called à la carte programs.
The first step toward healthier school food is to increase that free-lunch subsidy by at least 70 cents, said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York. Others want more and say it should be spent largely on fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. But some observers argue that even 70 cents is unrealistically high, given other pressures on the federal budget.
“After bank bailouts and health reform, I worry about there being money left over for child nutrition,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who has helped write some of the legislation Congress will be considering. Still, the burdens of obesity and diabetes on the health care system make it easier to argue that schools should serve less processed food, advocates argue.
“If you feed a kid chicken nuggets and canned peas and Doritos and canned fruit as a school lunch or you feed him grilled chicken, steamed broccoli and fresh fruits and a whole grain roll, the difference is night and day,” Senator Gillibrand said.
As part of this year’s work on the Child Nutrition Act, Senator Gillibrand is co-sponsoring legislation that would ban trans fat in cafeteria kitchens and give the Department of Agriculture more power to set tougher federal nutrition requirements for the lightly regulated à la carte program in schools.
If Congress approves the changes, the agency would be empowered to change rules it set in the 1970s, when nutritionists worried more about dental decay and nutrient deficiencies than obesity. Cavity-causing jelly beans and Popsicles were banned, but not calorie-rich food like Snickers and ice cream bars.
But the federal government needs to address other issues, said Katie Wilson, the recent president of the School Nutrition Association and a Wisconsin food service director with 30 years of experience.
School nutrition directors should have to meet national standards to qualify for the job, she said. Complex nutritional regulations need to be streamlined. And kitchens need to be re-equipped so workers can actually cook healthier food. A recent School Nutrition Association study showed that over 80 percent of schools cook fewer than half of their entrees from scratch.
“If they don’t give me a steamer, I can’t steam a vegetable,” she said. “I have to deep fry it.”
Others say reform will require deeper surgery, arguing that the U.S.D.A. has a conflict of interest it must resolve: One part of the agency is charged with feeding children nutritious food and another helps large agricultural companies sell surplus food like beef and chicken that is usually processed into packaged products like taco meat or nuggets.
Ms. Merrigan said the federal government was adding more fruits and vegetables to the commodity foods list, but said that districts and parents needed to keep pushing to make meals healthier.
To that end, raising money for school food projects is in vogue this fall. Slow Food USA introduced Time for Lunch to lobby Congress for more school food funding, a new priority for an organization once focused solely on artisanal, not institutional, food. The effort will culminate in hundreds of Labor Day fund-raisers called “eat ins.”
This month, Whole Foods began a national “school food revolution” campaign starring Ms. Cooper, who will offer tips for better school lunches in store publications, on-line videos and a series of public appearances. The company is also asking shoppers to donate at the register to pay for Ms. Cooper’s work.
And the W. K. Kellogg Foundation recently narrowed its mission to pay for programs that help children eat better and exercise more. Over the next three years, the foundation will give out $32 million, about a third of which will go to school food programs. Ricardo Salvador, the program director, thinks that at last, momentum is building toward a better school lunch.
“If you can’t get this transformation going with all that lined up, then you’re never going to get it going,” he said.