Guest blogger: School lunch news roundup

***Our news guest blogger: Brandon Smith is back to share the latest in school lunch news. ***

This week I’ve seen an incredible uptick of the use of the Twitter hashtag #foodrevolution. You and I know it’s bigger than Mr. Oliver’s show. In part it’s fueled by the fact that this week, the traditional media picked up steam on school lunch stories. I guess they were busy reporting last week after all.

A big reason for the stories is that the Blanche Lincoln bill passed committee. Here are two stories from Grist, an awesome online source, about why this bill is “dismal.” Of all the pieces I recommend today, these are the two you need to read.

A New York Times blog gave Lincoln the voice to say this is just the beginning of the reform process, and also to blame the current dismal funding increase on the need to avoid partisan bickering.

“We’d all like to do more and we’re going to try but we’ve got to get started,” she said. “If we just separate and go to our separate fox holes we don’t get to the end product.”
But my thought is, first, that child nutrition (unlike many other parts of the budget) should be beyond partisan bickering. Even much less so than health care reform. Just because “hippies” have promoted school lunch reform in the past doesn’t mean it’s a “hippie” issue. My second thought is, school lunches are such an incredibly small piece of the federal budget. There HAS to be more money somewhere. Haven’t they seen the movie “Dave?” (Wink!)
First Lady Michelle Obama recently told School Nutrition Association (SNA) members that “if you asked the average person to do what you have to do every day, and that is to prepare a meal for hundreds of hungry kids with just $2.68 a child – with only $1.00 to $1.25 of that money going to the food itself – they would look at you like you were crazy.”

I didn’t know she promoted these figures, since Pres. Obama only proposed around a 15-cent increase per school lunch, and apparently settled (placing the fallout on Sec. of Ag Vilsack) for a 6-cent increase. Surely Michelle realizes this. What does she think about it? I don’t mean to put a rift between the first couple, but surely Michelle has some say in what the president does. School lunch reform seems to be her biggest issue. Why is she settling for less?

The bill passing committee is an example of a “news peg,” some tidbit of breaking news on which a larger story is hung. But I’m a fan of stories that don’t wait for the officials to make an “official” announcement that’s been brewing behind closed doors for weeks. It seems artificial to me.

Here’s an example of a poorly-researched story with a dysfunctional news peg, by CNN. The first sentence name-drops the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization (“Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010″), but then goes on to talk about Ann Cooper’s re-vamp of Berkeley’s school lunches, not mentioning the Act again. The worst part is, the headline “School Lunch Gets an Upgrade” and the juxtaposition of these two elements (the Act and Ann Cooper’s work) make a reader think the Act will move us toward school lunch utopia. If you read the Grist articles above, you know it’s not so. We have to be on the lookout for misleading reporting, even from the likes of the top news outlets.

I’m just happy that people everywhere are getting riled up about their school food. From Healthy Tara, the student who demanded ingredients lists, to the students who brought school lunch before the Chicago school board, change is in the air. But it’s up to all of us to stay informed and to make sure the change is meaningful to kids.

If you read Tara’s posts, you see it hasn’t been easy to face the giant school food companies. So far, to deny the release of ingredient information, they’ve claimed that their recipes are the intellectual property of the company. Much like a restaurant chef or owner “owns” his or her recipes and, thus, can even sell them. But with 62 ingredients in cheese pizza, I highly doubt this defense would hold up in court. There’s no way anyone would try to “steal” the recipe and use it themselves. (Imagine having these ingredients at home, or selling school food in any other venue!)

And when the school lunch companies that serve Chicago found out students were preparing speeches to the school board about the lunches, they went on preemptive strike. From this blog post by Monica Eng, a Chicago Tribune food writer:

“…yesterday representatives from Chartwells fanned out searching for the students who planned to give speeches-even asked to take some out of class–so they could talk to the kids about their presentations.
Some students have been denied permission to attend the meeting and others are postponing their speeches until April.”
How disastarous. I want to know if the company reps actually were allowed access to students. If so, I want the names of the administrators that allowed this BS.

But I stumbled on some good news this week, too. Silicon Valley investors are getting into the business of sustainable agriculture. Like the new car companies (Tesla, Aptera), they’re trying to beat traditional business at its own game. This could be the beginning of a long-term solution.

Maybe the proof-of-concept is already here, in this company that provides healthy food to schools that’s often local and organic, as reported by USA Today.

This Huffington Post writer interviewed a director of a school lunch program that has been on the mend for several years now. The main lesson we can take away is that if your school starts revamping their school lunches, buy from them. They need economies of scale to make this work. This may be intuitive because you want the best food possible, but here’s the strategy we should follow: the more thoroughly they revamp the program, the more you should buy from them. Give them an incentive to revamp it. If you’re campaigning for better lunches, make that a point. Doom and gloom without a solution is just doom and gloom.

Brandon Smith majors in both science and magazine journalism at Columbia College Chicago. He loves xkcd and has riled up health agencies in Ohio about not studying the effects of pollution. He’s at

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11 thoughts on “Guest blogger: School lunch news roundup

  1. Hmmm….not giving Tara the "recipe" is completely different than not giving her the "ingredients". By law, they have to list the ingredients; especially if they (and we know they do) contain any allergens. Even a can of cat food from the dollar store has to have its ingredients listed. Since they are supplying a government paid program, they do not get to claim they "own" the ingredient list. She should try approaching them from that angle. From what I understand, food distributors and wholesalers are not exempt from giving out this information. No "intellectual" anything will want their recipe….they can keep that. The ingredients…that's another story. I feel for Tara. I'm trying to make it mandatory our school districts in Texas list ingredients as well. They act as if allergens like dyes, milk, eggs, you name it, don't count if they are mixed in somewhere else. I had lunch at my son's school last week and broke out in hives. The only thing that makes me do that?? Foods with a large amount of yellow dye. Nice.

  2. Okay I am an Aussie and have to say that what our children eat should be the parents responsibility. Why in the world are schools responsible to feed your children? Why are the children not going to school with healthy packed lunches? Why is the government having to pay for your children to be fed? Sorry but this all seems like passing the buck to me. There is no offense intended here but I am sorry I just think this should all be so different.

  3. Khristina – I agree with you in many ways. However, I also strongly believe that nutrition and food are essential lessons that need to be taught; as much as math and history. School is the place that teaching happens and therefore, since our system is set up this way, it is important that the proper messages are being sent. School lunch is an opportunity to learn many social skills as well (i.e. manners, sharing, cleaning up after yourself)
    I am curious how it works in Australia. Are there school kitchens that serve lunch at all? Do home ec classes still exist? And are school gardens a popular concept? Thanks 🙂

  4. I'm sorry, but the talk radio tone of the guest blogger to me undermines what he wants to say. He is going to cause a rift between the "first couple?" No, I don't think that he has that much influence, and that statement is irrelevant to his points about school lunch.

    If these comments were more thoroughly researched, they would be more interesting and more helpful. It was hardly the "hippies" who promoted school lunch in years past. In fact, it was the United States Army that discovered that their WWII recruits were not in the best of health that gave the program a boost.
    Finally, please run a spell check on these posts. Disastarous is not a word, it is "disastrous." This also cuts into the writer's credibility, and detracts from his message.

  5. thank you thank you thank you for doing the groundwork reading all the articles and summarizing here for us. i've been digging through search engine links for days trying to figure out what the results of the proposed ingredient is. six cents, really, that's it? aren't our country's school kid worth more than that?

  6. Khristina, in the United States we have, sadly, many poor children. A subsidized school lunch program is essential for getting these kids a hot, nutritious lunch during school days. (We have other food and aid programs for poor families as well, this is just one of them.) The fact that these kids are getting fed crap food is a problem.

    For the kids whose parents aren't poor, the school lunches are more of a convenience- you can give your kid some money and they can buy a hot lunch. The parents I know, however, more often pack their kids a lunch because the lunches served at schools are junk food. The lunches used to be less processed food, but now they're equivalent to fast-food meals.

  7. Is mrs. q school lunch program outsourced? i worked as a sub in a school district for 3 yrs. that was outsorced by chartwells. it was horrible, chartwells is a corproation. their bottom line is profit. they do not care about our kids. i worked eveyday at sub-pay for 3 yrs. because they didn't have to hire me and could let me do all this work for sub-pay. there was 2 positions opened at that time. they have the workers doing the jobs of 3 people. why to save money, so what happened is we were all pretty grumpy, not fast at serving food to the kids and shortcuts were made to get the job done. we were constantly worried we would get fired. it was horrible. i since then quit and went to work for a school who ran their own lunch program. it was amazing. we all care and have input on how to make our lunch program be better. we are a team since most of us has our own children in this school. (i also transferred my son to this school even though i have to transprort him back and forth, we dont have the same schedual). all of our profits go back into the school district. we get our kids through the lines quickly because there is no shotage of help. we do serve healthy food. 2 yrs ago we got rid of all deepfried food, and were constantly trying to come up with more nutrional ways. next year were going to all wheat and grain food products. we only sell nutrional treats. we prepare our food daily sometimes from scratch. from the superintendent on down we all care about our kids. not just a profit. although with school budgits in all areas that is also a great concern. i live in the state of michigan and in their questionable wisdom they our trying to force all schools in mi. to outsource their lunch, janitoral, and bussing. this is an outrage. if it happens i not only will not wrk for a outsource co. but i will also homeschool my child.

  8. FYI – ingredient lists aren't intellectual property really – maybe (and its a stretch in my mind) trade secret as long as they keep it secret actively. Recipes and be copyrighted – in so much as the way it tells you to use the ingredients (the creative parts).

  9. How is it legal for companies NOT to list ingredients considering how many people have food allergies??

  10. Dear Anonymous: I appreciate your comments. If I'm wrong, I delight in being held accountable. The spelling mistake is regrettable.

    If you're reading the blog regularly, you agree with at least some of what's being said. (If not, and are just reading to be contentious, we have nothing in common.) If so, I'd like to know specifically what parts you feel are too radio-talk-show-host, rather than just "blog." This is, after all, a place where writers voice their opinions. I'm not claiming to be superbly fair and balanced.

    As for not being well-informed, I only claim to be marginally informed about the *recent* information surrounding this issue. I always love it when people with more knowledge than I share what they know in the comments. If it's timely, relevant, and I can substantiate it with outside evidence, this knowledge will make it into the next post.

    Dear Tammy: Did CNN change its article? The date on it now shows 3-29 instead of 3-26. It seems a little different than the version I read… Maybe I'm just seeing something I want to see? Generally the ethical thing to do when editing an already-published article is to note the changes at the top or bottom…

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