Despite my fourteen years of advocacy, I wish I could say that that the food has significantly changed in my own school district. My youngest child is still brown bagging it and will likely continue for the remaining 5 years she’s got left in public school.
How could that possibly be? Let me explain how things work. When it comes to lunch, there are two types of school food service.
When advocating for better food in K-12 public schools, one of the first things you need to find out is who is running the show. Is your school’s lunch program self-operated or is it run by a food service management company?
What’s the difference?
In a self-op situation, those lunch ladies you see in the cafeteria are employees of the school district just like teachers and principals are. Often times, they are members of the community and even have kids in the district. An estimated 60-75% of school lunchrooms across the country are self-operated.
Chefs like Tony Geraci, Tim Cipriano and Ann Cooper are making inspiring inroads in Baltimore, New Haven and Boulder school districts where they were hired to make changes. Food consultant Kate Adamick has done wonderful things to improve school food in Santa Barbara County with S’cool Foods initiative (http://www.scoolfood.org/welcome/index.cfm ). Chefs Tony, Tim, Ann and Kate have been successful in school districts with self-operated school food service. Most importantly, they cook real food, from scratch.
Other school districts, like mine, outsource lunch by hiring food service management companies (FSMCs). These corporations bring in their own employees and often make a profit by utilizing large volumes of packaged foods and snacks that qualify for rebates from the manufacturers of those products. Often, many of these snacks are the same junk that you as a school food advocate are working hard to get out of your cafeteria!
Michelle Obama is aware of the impact food service management companies have on school lunch. She addressed it in her Let’s Move initiative (http://letsmove.gov/ ). As a result, three of these food giants, Aramark, Sodhexo and Chartwells, have voluntarily committed to meet the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations within five years to decrease the amount of sugar, fat and salt in school meals; increase whole grains; and double the amount of produce they serve within 10 years.
Frankly, I don’t understand why more veggies in schools will take 10 years. My youngest daughter will have graduated from college by then. If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t these school food giants make a meaningful push toward better school food? And what about Farm to School (http://www.farmtoschool.org/index.php )? Why can’t these big players source some of their food from smaller, local and regional farms that are close by? It’s good for the economy and for the environment.
Sadly, my school district and thousands of others continue to serve the same packaged processed food with no hope for any meaningful change anytime soon. There may be some superficial window dressing, such as “healthier” baked chicken nuggets and tater tots, Vitamin Water instead of full strength Coca Cola, whole-wheat pizza crusts with low fat cheese and some baked chips that meet new dietary guidelines. It’s easy for food manufacturers to adapt their edible foodlike products to match nutrient standards.
It boils down to money. Lunch is the only part of the school day that is under the USDA. The rest of the school day falls under the Department of Education. Schools are under pressure to make sure that lunch is financially self sustaining: it must break even or turn a profit.
When it comes to school lunch, our priorities are mixed up. We’ve put money and profit ahead of our children’s health and well-being. Plus, we are missing a huge opportunity to teach our kids about real food, in the cafeteria.
As my feisty friend and colleague Kate Adamick puts it:
The change will only happen when school superintendents and board of education stop abdicating their responsibilities to teach their students throughout the ENTIRE day. Kids don’t stop learning just because they’re on lunch break, and schools shouldn’t be contracting those teachable moments away to for-profit companies any more than they contract the services of the math or English departments away to for-profit companies. They are complicit in what amounts to corporate exploitation of the children in their care.
What can you do as a parent to remedy this situation? Please don’t sit back, brown bag your kid’s lunch and look the other way. Take a stand and get involved. Find like minded people in your community, including teachers like Mendy Heaps and Mrs.Q, and form a better school food coalition. Visit the Better School Food (http://www.betterschoolfood.org/ ) website for more resources and email me (firstname.lastname@example.org ), I’m happy to help you to come up with effective strategies that will help foster positive change.