Open thread: Money

How are we going to fund an improvement in school lunches? I would love it if all parents had the time, money, and food knowledge to pack their children’s lunches every day. That would be a wonderful solution. However, many parents have limited funds and they don’t have a clue about nutrition. Have you ever seen a kid get a large bag of grapes for lunch? (That happened at a summer camp I worked at one summer)

And we still have the issue of kids wasting the lunch that they currently get. IF the lunches were better quality, would they eat them and waste less? What can we do about the huge amount of good food getting thrown straight into the garbage?

The US spends 7 billion dollars a month on the war (I don’t remember if that was just Afghanistan or Iraq and Afghanistan) and the child nutrition bill that just got passed raises the budget by 4 billion over 10 years. Do we spend too much on war and too little on American kids? I’m not going to answer that question… I’ll leave it to you….

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32 thoughts on “Open thread: Money

  1. My Grandmother managed an elementary school cafeteria for 30 years. She just told me today that the USDA gave her school flour, lard and sugar for free. It didn't use her budget and with it she was able to bake all of their bread, buns, pies, and cakes for very little money. Do they still offer that?

  2. My daughter is no fan of the school lunches. So we pack one every day. An additional difficulty in Madison, Wisconsin happens to be that kids only get 20 minutes for lunch. This includes the time it takes to walk down to the cafeteria.

  3. My daughter is no fan of the school lunches. So we pack one every day. An additional difficulty in Madison, Wisconsin happens to be that kids only get 20 minutes for lunch. This includes the time it takes to walk down to the cafeteria.

  4. I find myself unemployed for the second time in 2 years. Very frustrating. But I feel guilty letting my kids eat the free school lunch because 1)they look/taste gross, 2)they are not healthy, and 3)they still waste a lot of food. I don't have an answer, but I am frustrated. Next year one student will be in middle school while the other starts high school. Thought about bento boxes so it would be cooler to pack lunch but not sure that works w/my kids any more.

  5. We spend about 17% of our GDP on health care. Only about 4% on defense. And less than half of half a percent on school lunches.

    The school lunch system is closely tied to the Farm Bill and the system of subsidies that were put into place by Earl Butz. If we were to take the gross amount we spend subsidizing overproduction of corn and soy, limit it to a reasonable level (because there IS a reasonable level and we're pretty far beyond that), we would find an excellent source of funding. If we were to provide universal free school lunch to every child in America at $5.00/lunch, pay for the necessary renovations to school kitchens and pay for the slight increase in labor, it would only end up costing us just about half a percent of our GDP each year. And it would also limit the amount of high-fructose corn syrup in the food system. Two birds. One stone.

  6. I hink a large portion of the issue is that over the years the educational system as a whole have lost funding. As the years went on schools got less money for everything. I think that one of the issues with fod being thrown away is that portions are too large at some schools. These are elementary kids, they don't eat much of anything let alone something they don't even like. The bottoms line for funding is that it has to come from taxes. The community has to be willing to say: "Yes, the schools are import. Yes, we can afford to give a bit more money to our schools so that the next generation to run the country has the ability to run the country."

    Another major issue with cost is subsidies in general. The USDA testified to Congress that in 2002 “27 percent more students are certified for free or reduced-price meals than the Census data itself would suggest are eligible.” The food service companies that supply school breakfasts and lunches are prone to inflate expenses and use fraudulent billing schemes in their school contracts. There's a good break-down at and interesting chart at

    MORE TAXES! YAY! The sad thing is, if this is even suggested the TeaBaggers will revolt and start shooting people who look like they go to school or went to school or have seen a school.

  7. The school my nephews go to does not offer school lunch, so my sister has to pack their lunch. It works for my sister as she has picky eaters and she uses Laptop lunches which have different dividers and she lets her children pick what they want to eat (fruit, veggie, grain, protein.) That way they do not waste their food and actually eat it. However it does make me wonder what other children in the school do, especially those whose parents are not as concerned about nutrition.

  8. Actually, four cups of grapes (a large bunch?) is about 450 calories, almost all from carbohydrate, with six grams of protein and five grams of fiber, and just one gram of fat, plus almost no sodium. This "meal" has more than a day's worth of Vitamin C; a meal's worth of potassium, copper, manganese, thiamine, Vitamin B6, and riboflavin; and half a meal's worth of iron, magnesium, and phorosphorus; plus up to 10% of a day's requirements of several other needed nutrients.

    In comparison, six slices of white bread have about the same calorie count, with half a day's sodium allowance and twelve grams of protein, six of fat, and eighty of carbohydrate, with almost four grams of fiber. The bread has half the thiamine and a meal's worth of niacin, selenium, iron, riboflavin, and manganese; and respectable amounts of calcium, phosophorus, and copper; but no Vitamin A nor Vitamin C at all.

    Replace 200 calories of that bread with an equivalent amount of mayonnaise and American cheese and you drastically reduce the nutrients and raise the fat content for what might look like a more reasonable lunch of a cheese sandwich and a half.

    So those grapes weren't so bad after all! 🙂

  9. I have two children in elementary school and I pack their lunches everyday. It does take time but it is well worth the effort given the alternative. My kids get fresh fruit and veggies while the school serves deep fried processed cheese at least once a week.

    We are also on a tight budget, but have found ways to make packing lunches affordable. We don't buy anything prepackaged or precut. (I am a huge supporter of waste-free lunches.)

    I can also relate with the comment Madison, WI. My kids too only get 20 minutes for lunch and this includes the time it takes to get to the lunch room. Everyday at least one of mine reports they were late getting to lunch and didn't get to finish.

    I applaud you in your efforts to make a difference!!

  10. So, we spend about $7B on the war, any idea how much we spend on school lunches? 1/14th that?

  11. My mom works at our local school district and when I mentioned all of this talk about public school lunches, she told me what the kids at her elementary school got as their main course that day: funnel cake.

    I don't think we need some astronomical amount of money reallocated for public school lunches (don't get me wrong, some would absolutely help). We just have to make what we have count. Corn dogs and funnel cakes are prime examples of throwing our funds away.

    Also, an elementary school child needs roughly 1700 calories a day – not too much less than what I consume every day, accounting for physical activity. Still, their appetite and growth rates both decrease, meaning that some days, they might be hungry for just a small amount of food – other days, they might be ravenous. Because of this, we have to rid our minds of the "clear your plate" mantra, and accept that it's okay if kids don't want to eat a huge amount. They have the ability to self-regulate: when they're hungry, they will eat, and when they're full, they will stop (that is, until socialization teaches them to finish everything). Smaller portions would work well for this – especially since our portion sizes have been getting bigger and bigger, anyway.

    I think we can do a better job of spending the (admittedly abysmal) funds that the schools have right now, and hopefully in the future, they'll have bigger budgets to work with.

  12. I'll see your "large bunch of grapes" and raise you FIVE CHEESE STICKS. Exactly the "lunch" one fourth grader brought to school one day.

    I see some terrible brought-from-home lunches. I see some wonderful lunches as well – that don't get eaten. Why? Well, one 3rd grader who's parent always packs a mini bagel or crackers with an individual package of pb or a container of hummus and sometimes a sandwich complains every day that she doesn't like what she has. She also buys milk (40 cents) and/or an ice cream (80 cents to $10) and usually doesn't consume either. The milk comes back to us (no credit to her) and the ice cream goes in the freezer with her name on it for another day.

    4th and 5th graders are the best eaters but then again, they are the last two lunch waves – 1pm-1:25 and 1:30-1:55pm – so they are probably starved.

  13. while this is a hard thing that we struggle with. Being an educator and a military wife of a soldier who fights in those wars it is tough to decide which to spend more money on. Until we get someone in the White House who has seen those lunches, who has seen and had to personally deal with the students in the schools and not just by visiting but actually working in classrooms, there will be no help given. It takes those who want to see change to help those who have no clue as to what the schools are facing and going through. While yes I think it is silly to spend so much on war and so little on lunches both are important in this day and age. I have eaten horrible food from different schools in the town I grew up in and a lot of it has changed since I went to school in the district. Most of the meals are full of fillers and have no real substance to them. If we want change, we need to get some people who have actually been in schools and have taught before we can see the change. Nothing will come of it until then as sad as it is.

  14. I know that it's not possible in all areas, but some schools around me have been able to plant gardens, with the veggies going straight into the cafeteria. The kids are able to learn the vegetables and their nutritional benefits, actually grow them, and then are able to enjoy them. It's a great learning experience, cuts out some cost, and gets the lunches healthier.

    As far as waste goes, I've been surprised with how "put-together" the school lunches shown on this blog have been. I can't remember a time in school when I couldn't pick out my own side dishes. I guess the boxed-lunch format makes it a bit easier and more "balanced", but it has to add up to waste.

  15. Yes, you could more than likely reduce waste by offering an a la carte system, or a "pick one of the main dishes and two of the veggies" system. But my real question? If the average school day starts at 8:30 (or thereabouts) how are the children waiting until 1 or 1:30 even able to stay attentive in class?

    I think what a lot of this comes down to is realistic expectations — it's not realistic to expect students to walk to a lunchroom, wait in a line, get and pay for lunch, eat, clean up after themselves, and get to class in 20 minutes. It's not realistic to feed kids that much sugar and expect that they won't spike and crash. And it's really not realistic to think that the cafeteria isn't a classroom. If you teach nutrition, then the laboratory for the lessons is the lunchroom.

    To go back to the funding issue — I like what's been said above. I think that allowing the schools to have a little more control over their individual lunchroom instead of thinking of it as a "city-wide" issue. We've seen that the food served to the smaller children and the food served to older students can often be the same, with little regard for changing tastes or changing needs other than portion sizes. While ordering as a district is cheaper, with the all the waste it's not economical anyway — I can "save" $20 on groceries, but if I don't eat them, I really haven't saved a dime.

  16. I pay tax money to support the school lunch program, and I don't have any kids in school. I am APPALLED at the way this money is being spent on absolute junk instead of good nutrition. I would be happy to pay more and know that children are being fed properly. What could be more important?
    I think the problem lies with the fact that the program is under the USDA instead of the departments of Health and Human Services or Education.

  17. The USDA testified to Congress that in 2002 “27 percent more students are certified for free or reduced-price meals than the Census data itself would suggest are eligible.”

    Not surprised. In our district guardians submit an application only. School office staff can ask for supporting documentation, but they rarely. Two siblings on free lunch at our school spend a month in Mexico every year at Christmastime. I kid you not. Other free lunchers often have extra money for snacks. Requiring parents to submit the most recent tax return would cut down on fraud, but schools, too, are rewarded with access to Title I funds if the percentage of students on free and reduced lunch is high.

    Worse than free lunch is the school breakfast, most of which are served to kids on free and reduced lunch with very few full payers. The majority of kids who eat breakfast at school are late to class. Boxed breakfasts are distributed up to ten minutes after the bell rings. I often see kids still eating their boxed breakfasts twenty minutes after class has started. Few of these kids would come to school on an empty stomach if the school didn't serve breakfast, and for those few, parental neglect, not poverty, is the problem. I used to live in China, and no urban Chinese parent sends their kid to school hungry. Oh, and the breakfast menu? French toast sticks on Monday, sausage biscuit Tuesday, sugar-coated cereal Wednesday, waffles Thursday, and breakfast pizza Friday.

    Our school lunches look very much like the ones served in the blogger's school. I keep in my classroom cupboard an emergency stash of tinned sardines and jars of three-bean salad in case I forget to pack a lunch.

  18. I am a "lunch buddy" at a local elementary school, as a high school student who is supposidly trying to chat with these kids who either are low-income or have family problems, one of our lower concerns is nutrition. Although recently I witnessed one of the younger students pull from him lunch bag simply a big bag of Fritos BBQ twists. Which shocked me. How could a parent do that? It offers no substance whatsoever. The school lunches here are decent, such as spaghetti, chicken nuggets with a salad bar. Would you send your child to lunch with just a bag of Fritos? These studens qualify for free or reduced lunch, but perhaps their parents are too proud to accept it.

  19. As for the waste, every school should support their own worm bin! Vermicomposting isn't hard or expensive to do and the kids love it! Plus, the school can use the natural byproduct to support their own gardens, which could then supply the school with some much needed nutritious food!

  20. The role of food in our schools is not: for nutrition, for enjoyment, or for health education. Its about consumption and use of funds. Our children are missing out on critical life experiences. But we are teaching them other important lessons. We are showing children that repeated consuming processed food is a requirement. We are showing them that being in their seat and sitting for hours on end is better that running around outside and playing. We are showing them that they don't know what is good for their bodies… but the sorry thing is it seems like the adults around them don't know either. The School System in America has shifted from a place of learning into a factory of education. Much like car production and the hyper-scheduled itineraries of model cars, our children are being shuffled around from from one area to the next without understanding what is going on or getting involved in the lessons.

    School lunches are a true reflection of the modern American education system- budgeted, restrictive, uniform, and uninspiring.

  21. My son is a first grader in NW Illinois. His school day starts at 8:40 and ends at 3. The school doesn't offer lunch and doesn't even have a lunchroom. He has snacktime at 9:45 every morning and lunch at 11:25. He gets about 20 minutes for lunch, but that gets eaten at his desk — no time wasted going to the lunchroom, waiting in line, etc. Each room has a "lunch mom", which is someone who volunteers to help the kids open, cut and clean up their lunch in each room. She even helps pack up the leftover food to take back home. So I always know what my son ate or didn't eat. And all the students have daily recess (weather permitted).

    I do not know how students get free or reduced lunch in the school. It must be a cold lunch every day since the facilities don't exist. We are very fortunate in that we do not require the free/reduced lunch. But I have to say that this school structure seems to work for my family. My son's lunch is a top priority for me (since I'm the one making it every morning). I love to make Laptop Lunches and think it's challenging and even fun to make a quality lunch every day for my child. Don't get me wrong, it's not always fun to make lunch at 7 a.m. when you know other parents out there are not. But I'm constantly on the hunt for inspiration. Let's be inspired, Parents!

  22. Have you checked out Revolution Foods –

    They are serving students in California, DC and Denver healthy all natural school lunches and providing nutrition education to all of their students. Over 75% of their students are recipients of free and reduced lunch. I noticed they weren't included in your links section.

  23. Keep in mind that many students receiving free lunches that may not be "entitled" to do so are part of programs that ARE approved by federal regulations.

    If a school meets a certain threshhold number of kids who qualify for free lunch (I believe the number is 90%??), then all kids in the school receive free meals as it has been determined that the cost of having to put in place procedures to get the funds from the small number of children who do not qualify has been deemed to be higher than the funds that would be collected from these children.

    Please also keep in mind that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program) is designed to provide funds for families to feed themselves for approximately 2 weeks out of the month (taking into account that any children in the family are receiving free breakfast/lunch through the schools). These two programs were NEVER designed to be a family's primary source of food and nutrition, but as food costs have increased and SNAP benefits have remained relatively stable (though there was a sizeable increase last year for the first time in many), these benefits have become a larger and larger percentage of recipients' total food source.

    Food insecurity is a real problem. I live in an urban area where 95%+ of the children in the local schools are at or below the poverty line. Harvesters, the local food bank, has partnered with the schools to create the Back Snack program. Recognizing that SNAP benefits are providing less and less food on the table as food costs soar, organizations now provide students with backpacks filled with nutritious food every friday. Harvesters alone provides 10K of these backpack kits every week. They also provide larger kits for holidays and spring break.

    Studies have found that these snack kits have improved attendance, test scores, in-class behavior, and have decreased discipline problems.

  24. Why not standardize all meals come from home. If a family is in economic hardship they qualify for food stamps and other local programs (food banks etc.) Of course I realize some parents will forget from time to time and some parents may even refuse. In such cases I suggest two of the very same choices every single day- beans & rice or pb & jelly. Neither costs much at all and both are enough to nourish a brain and body enough to be able to learn.

  25. Alyssa, you're completely right. It's all about money and fitting our children's "nutrition" around satisfying ADM, Cargill, etc.

  26. When I was in school, long, long ago, the food waste from our cafeteria was sold (I am sure at low cost) to a local pig farmer. Paper and other waste was separated from actual food. The farmer picked up the food each day. You will never get children to eat everything on their plates, nor do I think you should. Each child should decide how hungry he is. I do not think that there is any harm in asking the child to have one bite of each item. I think children often think they do not like something based on its appearance alone.

  27. Yes, school food is terrible.
    However, I feel the need to play devil's advocate on this one.
    I work with the band at high school near my home. I only found out last week that the program I work for is going to be continued. This district is, in the next 6 months, closing 3 high schools, 4 elementary schools, dropping all elementary art and music classes, eliminating freshman sports and laying off 150 teachers. Unfortunately, this is the best case scenario. If the levy they have on the ballot for this spring does not pass they will also dissolve all athletics and after school programs, dissolve all in-school intervention classes (extra reading and math classes for struggling students), eliminate all busing and close another 3 schools. All to close a $100 million+ budget gap.
    Many schools have much bigger budgetary concerns than how bad the lunches are.
    I applaud those who are trying to take steps to fix this long running problem. But the entire educational system in America is broken. Until schools have enough finding to provide stable curriculum and education to students the lunch issue will likely remain on the back burner.

  28. First, I will say that I think it is great that people are recognizing the horrors of many school cafeterias and are attempting to do something to change things. . .

    However, this is nothing new. I am twenty-four and lived in three different states when I was in grade school- some with excellent educational systems, others, not so much. I have now witnessed additional states school systems and there is one thing they all have in common- the cafeteria food is always gross. Just what is served and how appealing it is may vary from state to state, district to district, but even as a child I knew that my mother wouldn't eat it, it couldn't be healthy, and it certainly looked gross. It is not natural for meat to bounce- this was true in all of the states I lived in.

    My mother, I will say not the greatest mom, got tired of packing my lunches when I was little because she would packed 2x what I could eat and so I would pick out what I wanted and leave the rest. So, at age 6, I started packing my own, which usually consisted of what the little girl wanted to eat, not what was healthy. Then around age 8, my mother was eligible for food stamps and I for free lunches, so that made her life easier, so I ate whatever the school provided.

    Another big problem I saw in school, which is unfortunately true today still, is that kids only got something like twenty minutes to stand in line, scarf down food, and then go to the bathroom before returning to lunch. Many kids would skip eating so they could have some form of recess or socializing outside if weather permitted. Plus, more and more schools are actually getting rid of PE on top of all various forms of recess.

    And we wonder why obesity rates are so high in this country. . .

  29. The national budget comparisons are meaningless.

    National defense is perhaps the primary purpose of a country's government.

    Feeding children is perhaps the primary responsibility of their PARENTS.

  30. I have enjoyed reading your blog so far and am saddened you chose to use the irrelevant statistic of budget comparisons. Of course the cost of feeding our school children pales in comparison to the cost of 2 wars–that's just logic. The choice to quietly vilify these wars (and even more silently those who fight it and use this "wasteful" money in the form of food, shelter and a $250/month allowance that is estimated to make up for the fact that one is separated from his family) is getting old and tiresome.

    My husband is a soldier and is in Iraq for the 3rd time in 5 years. Nutrition is important to our family and I know we would both gladly give up some of his (our?) pay if we knew it would go to weaning America's kids off of sodium, processed grains, fake cheese and the like. Sadly, we aren't there yet…

    I applaud the spotlight you are putting on this issue. It's created quite a bit of conversation in our house so far.

  31. I know this is an old post, but I did want to comment on your question about whether kids would eat more if the food was better. The answer is YES!! Of course, at first, if you change the food they’re used to getting, there will be some resistance. But once they acclimate to seeing and eating real food, their appetites will blossom. I’ve just started my two little ones in school, and am appalled at what they are being served. My children, who will eat adult portions of fruits and veggies, and ask for seconds, will barely touch school food.

    The most frequent comment I hear from parents and teachers who serve their kids junk food is about how their children are picky and have to be “forced” to eat their food. Every kid I know who is raised in an environment of healthy, whole, real foods rarely leaves an empty plate. You feed them junk, and they will quickly turn as bland as their food. You give them dynamic, tasty, natural foods, and it will awaken their appetites and their bodies.

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