Let’s Talk Honestly About Improving School Food

by Dana Woldow on August 12, 2009

As students get ready to head back to their classrooms, it’s time to have an honest conversation about how to improve school food, including what the costs really are. After seven years of working for better food in our public schools, one thing I know for sure is that higher quality food costs more money. This is why, as Congress prepares to take up re-authorization of the Child Nutrition Act, letter-writing campaigns are being organized by everyone from students at a local high school to the foodies of Slow Food Nation. Everyone is urging Congress to appropriate more money so that our most vulnerable population – low-income children – can get what Slow Food calls “real” food in their school lunch, rather than cheap processed government commodities.

That’s why it is counterproductive – not to mention untrue – to claim that school food can be “fixed” at no additional cost. Insisting that “better food costs no more” is magical thinking and hinders efforts to get Congress to put more money into child nutrition programs. After all, if better food can be had for no additional cost, why should Congress agree to spend more?

One route to getting more “real” food onto students’ plates is called “farm to school”, which is pretty much what it sounds like – connecting small farms with schools, so that the cafeterias can get their fruits and vegetables directly from local farmers, rather than using government commodities or produce shipped in from far away.

The official party line is that “it costs no more” for schools to do farm to school because purchasing locally grown produce is cheaper than buying food shipped in from all around the country. However, a blogger at Zerofoodprint, which bills itself as “the ethics and business of sustainable food” recently blasted this “costs no more” myth to pieces:

“These days, most schools don’t have kitchens with the space or facilities to prepare fresh, whole food. More often than not, school “kitchens” consist of microwaves and warming bins. And, with limited budgets, there are no funds to hire staff to prep or cook meals. Or, schools may be required to use union labor, which isn’t affordable.”

The blogger goes on to outline further challenges to small farms becoming suppliers to schools:

* Suppliers must have HACCP certification, and some schools require $1-2M in insurance coverage. Most small and medium farms can’t afford or don’t even know about these requirements.

* Each district has its own standards. Food-based standards are more common than nutrition-based, which means stricter rules on uniformity of products. Small/medium-sized farms have difficulties providing that sort of consistency and therefore aren’t eligible.

* Schools’ food purchasing is already highly regulated. There’s heavy administrative burden for schools regarding food safety, nutrition, record-keeping, and submitting reimbursement claims.

* Most districts seek suppliers who can serve all their campuses. Just like any institutional buyer, it’s easier to manage one consolidated supplier versus many smaller, local farmers. When budgets are tight, there aren’t enough staff to manage multiple farm vendors.

I fully expect that the “farm to school” cheerleaders will rise up and hack this poor blogger to pieces with their hand trowels for daring to suggest that maybe “farm to school” is not oh so easy and cost effective after all. This is blasphemy in the foodie community, where it is assumed that The Ideal School Food Program has the students growing their own food in the school garden, then happily harvesting it and taking it to the cafeteria, where they prepare their own meals. Second best is having Farmer Brown down the road drop off a bushel of freshly picked carrots for lunch. But those carrots come with dirt clinging to the root hairs, and green tops attached; someone has to scrub them, peel them, and slice them. In San Francisco, that someone is making over $16 an hour to start (and the salary scale goes steeply upward after the first step), and suddenly Farmer Brown’s carrots are a lot more expensive than the prewashed sliced carrots from the Central Valley that come bagged in plastic.

More magical thinking comes from Revolution Foods of Oakland, which has just been given a contract to provide lunch at five Santa Cruz public schools. Revolution is a company that has attracted attention from parents with their promise to provide freshly cooked (not frozen) meals using organic and locally grown produce when possible. Their co-founders also like to tell the business community that good food can be provided at low prices. It is more than a little misleading when Revolution’s meals are characterized as costing “just $3 or $4, slightly more than a typical public school lunch” because the average price for a typical public school lunch in 2008-09 was only $2.08, according to the School Nutrition Association.

Because the cost of scratch cooking organic food is, in reality, far higher than the cost of serving frozen reheated meals, as most public schools do, Revolution charges school districts more for their meals than other vendors – a lot more. In fact, their recent bid on the lunch contract for the San Francisco Unified School District was higher in every category than the current SFUSD vendor, Preferred Meal Systems – as much as 50% higher – despite the fact that Preferred already uses mostly locally grown produce for the meals served in San Francisco. Since SFUSD is required to award the contract to the lowest bidder, Revolution will not be providing meals to the SFUSD this year.

The Santa Cruz school district already runs a deficit of about $500,000 in their student nutrition department; the Revolution contract is expected to drive that deficit higher. To compensate, the schools will begin charging more for lunch – elementary students will pay $3.25, up from $2.50 last year, while middle school kids will be asked to fork over $3.50, up from $3 last year. The district hopes that more paying students will choose to eat the school food once Revolution takes over with their never-frozen, cooked-yesterday model, and that the increased number of customers will bring in more money to cover the higher costs. However, during the worst economy since the Great Depression, it seems like more magical thinking to expect that parents who were packing lunch from home will jump at the chance to spend $16.25 a week for a 7 year old to eat the cafeteria meal, even if it was scratched cooked yesterday using organic ingredients.

Does that mean we abandon the quest to improve school food? Of course not; but when we talk about how much it would cost to do a farm to school model for procuring those locally grown fruits and vegetables, let’s be sure we add in all of the costs, not just the price paid to Farmer Brown. And when we talk about what it would cost to offer all of our students a freshly prepared organic meal, let’s not use magical thinking and say that it can be done for little more than a typical school lunch, because it can’t.

The only way we can really “fix” school food once and for all is for the Federal government to increase the amount of money it provides to cover the cost of school meals. All of our children deserve fresh healthy locally grown food, to nourish their bodies and their minds, but magical thinking won’t make it happen. To let Congress know how you feel, please visit www.sfusdfood.org and click on the banner at the top of the page. Or plan to attend the Slow Food-sponsored Eat In at San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza on Labor Day, September 7th; more details at http://www.slowfoodsanfrancisco.com/schoollunch.html

Dana Woldow is the parent of 3 students who attended San Francisco public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade.

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