Liars and Bullies and Clueless Reporters, Oh My!

by Dana Woldow on January 21, 2011

One of the most depressing things happening in the school food arena is something no one talks about. Not the ongoing serving of highly processed low quality food in many cafeterias around the country, or the over-the-top sodium content of too many school meals, or Congress squeezing out a mere six cents extra per meal to pay for 64 cents worth of newly required food improvements; all of that has been covered almost to death. I’m talking about something which never gets mentioned – it’s people refusing to tell the truth about what it takes to “fix school food.”

My fellow school food advocates here in San Francisco know better than to get me going on two topics – Revolution Foods and Jamie Oliver. Both of them have been much in the news recently; Revolution Foods is the company whose PR claims that they can provide an organic scratch cooked school lunch for “just” the cost of a government free lunch reimbursement, or as one recent clueless reporter gushed, “it doesn’t cost schools more to choose these meals.”

What utter crap! The truth is, Revolution charges about $3 per lunch on their cheapest plan, which, as the clueless reporter indicated, includes the cost of the food, with labor and transportation to get the food to the school. Once the food enters the cafeteria, however, Revolution’s job is over; they can pocket their $3 per meal and leave.

But for the school, the job has just begun. Revolution Foods meals are delivered the day before they are served, so they have to be refrigerated overnight and reheated on site each day. In addition to reheating the lunch, the cafeteria worker in a typical public school is also required by the USDA to check each student’s meal tray at the end of the lunch line to make sure that the meal they have chosen qualifies for government reimbursement; they must also correctly record each student as eligible for free, or reduced, or “paid” lunch, so that the correct reimbursement for each meal can be claimed. After lunch, the caf worker has to clean up, and make sure tomorrow’s Revolution meals are safely stowed in the fridge.

And about that fridge – someone has to pay for the electricity to run it, as well as the power for the rethermalization ovens to reheat the food before it is served. Someone has to pay for pest control for the cafeteria, and the overhead lights, and garbage collection, and the costs of processing meal applications, filing out mountains of paperwork to get the govt. reimbursement, and making sure the school sites are complying with federal regulations so that they can pass the mandated program review every 4 years.

Who pays those costs? Why, the schools of course, because the entire $2.72 government reimbursement for a free lunch already went into the pocket of Revolution Foods just to get the meal in the back door of the cafeteria.

“It doesn’t cost schools more to choose these meals?” Really? Because unless the caf worker is working for free, and unless the utilities are free, and the garbage collection is free, and the labor to process meal applications and plow through all the required forms to get the money from the government is all free, then it sure sounds like it costs schools more.

All of these costs have to be paid, and they are the reason why most schools can only afford to spend about a dollar of the $2.72 government reimbursement on the food. But alas, the clueless reporter made it sound like other schools were skimping on the cost of their meal by only spending $1 for food and then “using the savings somewhere else in their budgets.” That, of course, would be illegal – schools are not allowed to take money out of the meal program to pay other educational expenses, but lunch programs are expected to cover the costs incurred by their program, and that includes the costs of cafeteria workers, utilities, office expenses to process applications and apply for reimbursements, and other program overhead.

The truth is that Revolution Foods is not working any miracles; they are using better quality ingredients than some other meal companies, and they are charging more for them; that’s why their meal costs $3 and the typical school meal provider only charges about $1. So why not say so? In fact, taking a look at Revolution Foods’ own promotional materials on their website.

I can see that our meals in San Francisco’s public schools meet just about all of the same standards, with the exception of the hormone free meat, which we cannot afford, lacking Rev Foods’ partnership with Whole Foods. But most of the rest of it – no trans fat, no artificial dyes, no fried food, variety of fruits and vegetables, salads (we have salad bars in our middle and high schools), striving for little to no added sugar in our food, no rBST in the milk, and we have almost completely eliminated HFCS – all of this is already happening with our food, and yes, we pay a higher price for it.

Our meal program runs a deficit because we insist on higher quality food for our kids, but I would never ever tell anyone that it doesn’t cost our schools any more than a regular crappy school meal program, because of course it does! Of course it does! Why won’t Revolution Foods just tell the truth, that their better food costs more too, and join the chorus of people calling for the federal government to fund the school meal program at a level which would make these kinds of meals possible for all kids?

And then there is Jamie O. He has been alternately crying and pouting to the media this past week over the Los Angeles school district’s refusal to let him film his new reality show in their schools. He feels his mission is just too important to have to get permission from bureaucrats, and he is urging parents to band together and demand that he be allowed in to work his miracles.

Hey Jamie, don’t you think that if anyone walked into a public school – with a limitless wallet and the ability to just pay out of that wallet for any cost overruns; – knowing nothing about the regulations governing school meals, and determined to ignore the regs because he would not be there long enough to have to undergo a USDA review of his program and possibly have reimbursement money withheld until the violations are remedied – with the draw of a chance to appear on national TV, which is sufficient to entice the average American to do just about anything (hell, they will do just about anything even for a chance to be on YouTube) – don’t you think that person could also “transform” the school food experience?

But what does that prove – that someone operating completely outside the constraints of a regular school meal program (financial, regulatory, and social) can do things differently than someone who is forced to stay on budget and follow the rules?

I get it that JO has brought more attention to the school food issue, but it is so often the wrong kind of attention, the kind that seeks to blame those lowest on the food chain – the cafeteria ladies, the local schools, the local nutrition director – for problems which are coming from the top – the criminally low Federal funding that forces schools to rely on cheap processed food; the thicket of government regulation which must be followed no matter how senseless, and hoops which must be jumped through to get the pitifully low reimbursement; the lack of ongoing Federal funds to pay for equipment repair or kitchen renovation, forcing schools again to rely on preprocessed food instead of scratch cooking, unless they can pass the hat locally to pay for a central kitchen to cook fresh meals.

How does it help when viewers are encouraged to blame the people who have no say at all over the program, but who are forced to operate within the constraints of the program?

Just tell the damn truth – that it isn’t the fault of the nutrition services director lady that you didn’t put enough veggies into your lo mein to qualify as a serving of vegetables. She didn’t write the regulations, but if your skimping on the veggies causes her to get dinged in a program review by the USDA, it is her reimbursement money that will be held up and her program that will have to operate on credit for a year. Don’t make her out to be the villain; she is just doing the job that the USDA requires her, and all of the other nutrition directors, to do, and if you have a problem with that, then place the blame where it belongs – on the USDA, not on the local department head.

Don’t blame Alice the lunch lady for the fact that the lunch program is selling french fries – she doesn’t do budgeting or menu planning. Don’t bash the schools if they don’t have kitchens in which to cook – bash a government which yanked kitchen funding in the Reagan days and never started it up again in anything more than a piecemeal fashion.

This guy is a bully, plain and simple – he attacks and demonizes hard working and caring people who are stuck trying to do the impossible for precious little thanks, and he does it not to make things better (because really, what does getting into a fight with Alice the lunch lady accomplish, besides add drama to his show and boost his ratings) but simply because he can – he can walk into a town like Huntington and make them all look like damn fools, and himself look like a hero, and walk off with a tidy profit and boost his own name recognition in the way that only American reality TV (the same institution which put Snooki on the cover of Newsweek) can do.

These people he is confronting and humiliating on national TV are the small potatoes – I’d like to see him take on Congress, which is where the change really needs to happen. Riling the community up to hate their local nutrition services director or their local lunch lady is not progress in my book, although I am sure it fattened Jamie’s wallet.

So how about telling the truth this time around, Jamie? Stop blaming the LAUSD staff because they don’t want you using their schools as a backdrop for manufactured drama and forced confrontation. Move your show to the halls of Congress and take on our Federal Government; that’s the real opponent here, not Alice the lunch lady. Pick on someone your own size.

Finally, on a more positive note, there is at least one guy in California who does get it, and that is our new Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. On the newly proposed school meal standards and that measly 6 cents Congress appropriated to pay for them, “the United States Department of Agriculture has proposed cordon bleu standards but so far Congress has provided only fast-food funding,” Torlakson said. “This is the right recipe for providing healthier meals to students, but the question is, how do schools pay the bill?”

According to a news release from the California Department of Education, Torlakson is not afraid to speak truth to power.

Torlakson, who last week declared a state of financial emergency in California’s schools after three years of budget cuts totaling $18 billion, said he would work with the Obama administration to persuade Congress to provide schools the resources they need. He said he wants to be sure the funding gap doesn’t lead school districts to eliminate school breakfast programs.

“Study after study tells us that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and we can’t afford to go backward on the progress we’ve made in ensuring that our students get a meal that improves their learning and good health,” Torlakson said.

At last, someone who is willing to tell the truth! I love you Tom – you are my new hero.

Dana Woldow has been an advocate for better school food since 2002. All three of her children graduated from San Francisco’s public schools.

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