That would be the federal school meals $12 billion program, which feeds some 31 millions kids across the country Monday through Friday. As best I can determine, there is only one journalist who is investigating this program in any depth: me.
And I don’t even get paid to do it.
This sad state of affairs says less about me, I think, than the ambivalent attitude with which most Americans regard school food. I fell into this role by accident. Before assuming the mantle of School Food Crusader, I was minding my own business, composting and growing tomatoes and collards in my kitchen garden here in the District of Columbia, about a mile from the White House, and writing about it on my blog, The Slow Cook. A Washington Post reporter in a previous life, I quite innocently one day asked permission to observe the kitchen operations at my 10-year-old daughter’s elementary school after I learned that Chartwells, the company hired by D.C. Public Schools to provide food service, was preparing food “fresh cooked.”
That, I thought, would be something for my blog: seeing food cooked from scratch at school. Boy was I in for a surprise. The first day, I watched the kitchen manager pull five-pound bags of something called “beef crumbles” out of the walk-in freezer. Made in a factory in Cincinnati from government surplus ground beef and processed soy protein, the “crumbles” were an odd, grayish color that looked to me like baker’s chocolate. She dumped them in a steamer for a few minutes, then stirred in some off-colored tomato sauce out of a can along with curly egg noodles also cooked in the steamer and some pre-shredded cheddar cheese.
Voila: “Baked ziti!” she declared.
“Fresh cooked” went downhill from there. The next morning it was “scrambled eggs,” meaning eggs cooked with 10 other industrial additives in a factory in Minnesota and shipped frozen, also destined for the kitchen’s steamer. Even the hardboiled eggs in Chartwells’ version of egg salad came frozen.
But breakfast was the worst: The kids were pouring strawberry milk nearly the sugar equivalent of Mountain Dew over candy-colored Apple Jacks cereal. On the side they were eating Pop-Tarts, Giant Goldfish Grahams and swilling orange juice as well. I calculated that these grade schoolers—kids as young as five–typically were consuming 50 to 60 grams of sugar before they even started class. That’s the equivalent of 15 teaspoons of sugar.
Where were the adults?
My week as a fly on the wall in an elementary school kitchen turned into a six-part series of articles, then an op-ed piece in The Washington Post. Apparently, it was the first time a journalist had staked out a modern school kitchen. Readers were so scandalized by what I wrote, they practically demanded that I find a school district that was making food right. Ann Cooper, the “renegade lunch lady,” arranged for me to spend a week in the central schools kitchen in Berkeley, CA.
In Berkeley, I was handed a hair net, an apron, and a pair of Latex gloves and put to work. No chicken nuggets there. Cooper, who’d been hired by Alice Waters five years earlier to switch school meals made out of the same processed junk kids in D.C. were eating to food made from scratch, insisted on serving real chicken on the bone. My first assignment was to sort 1,400 pounds of government commodity chicken pieces, the first step in what turned out to be an eight-day process of brining, roasting and eventually serving that chicken to 2,350 kids in the Berkeley Unified School District.
During my week there, I weighed pasta for shipping to outlying schools. I packed bins for simple breakfasts of organic cereal, plain milk and an apple to be eaten in the classroom. And every day around 11:25 I prepared to serve hordes of middle schoolers who descended on the “Dining Commons” at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School for lunch.
My supervisors during the week I played “lunch lady” were two highly seasoned chefs from the restaurant world. But as I discovered, the kids at Berkeley are really just like kids everywhere. What they wanted to eat was the same familiar food. Granted, it was cooked from scratch, often with locally-sourced ingredients. But it was still pizza twice a week, lots of pasta, chicken and even re-engineered nachos (lose the gloppy, Dayglo cheese, add freshly cooked beans).
I wrote another six-part series (Berkeley). Now, all of my school food writings have been bundled together and presented as an ongoing series at the online environmental magazine, Grist.
My reporting—my journey into the outer reaches of the school food universe—continues. I sit in on meals almost every day at my daughter’s school and take photos. The pictures and written analysis I gather now appear on a daily blog called Better D.C. School Food, the house organ of a parents group I helped form here in Washington to agitate for change in school meals.
It’s a strange balancing act, trying to play objective journalist and food activist at the same time. But I think it’s fair to step out of my role as reporter for a moment and share what have I learned so far.
First, we could make school food healthier overnight. There’s no reason to wait for more standards or money from Washington. Simply remove all the sugary foods from kids’ meals. Did you know that in all of the hundreds of pages of regulations that govern the federal school meals program there’s not a single standard for the use of sugar? Insiders call it the “stealth” ingredient, a cheap source of empty calories. Thank the nation’s sugar lobby for blocking any regulation of its use in school food. And you thought we could solve the problem by getting rid of sodas?
Second, disabuse yourself of the idea that just by writing more standards in Washington, we can improve the quality of school meals. The school meals program already has plenty of standards, but schools have proven in spades that they can easily translate those standards into lousy food. What really matters is the quality of the ingredients and how they‘re prepared. What does the food look like on the plate? Is it palatable? Will the kids eat it? Or are the vegetables cooked to death and destined for the trash bin, presented simply to satisfy the government’s idea of what a reimbursable “meal” should look like? As I learned, an acceptable “meal” can consist of re-heated potato wedges, a bag of Sun Chips and a carton of strawberry milk.
Finally, there must be a reason why school meal programs have been driven into a state of perpetual poverty where the average school loses 35 cents on every meal it serves. Unfortunately, there exists on the local level a kind of circular firing squad where everyone blames everyone else for the poor quality of school food, but complaining is frowned upon because “we’re all trying as hard as we can.” Meanwhile, lawmakers in Congress and in state capitals across the country sit blithely above the fray, tossing pennies at the problem. I don’t normally subscribe to conspiracy theories, but the only people profiting from school food are giant food manufacturers like Tyson and ConAgra, and big food service contractors like Chartwells, Sodexo, Aramark. The folks with fat lobbying budgets are making billions serving kids frozen pizza and chicken nuggets.
Photographs like the ones published here and on other blogs reveal school food as grotesquely out of synch with an emerging American food ethic that prizes fresh ingredients without additives grown close to home and cooked from scratch. The federally-subsidized meals program began as a conduit for America’s farm surplus in the Great Depression, became a weapon against hunger during the Great Society, and now seems to be groping toward a third incarnation: teachable moment in America’s struggle to embrace a healthful, sustainable diet. Is there any way school food can get there from here?
Hold on to your hats, because it would certainly cost a lot of money, much more than what’s currently on the table, and perhaps even a complete re-imagining of the federal meals program itself. But if you are mad as hell about school food and don’t want to take it any more, you need to make your voice heard. And if you aren’t—well, maybe you need to spend some time in a school cafeteria and see up close what kids are eating. You just might be convinced to get involved yourself.