The “Target” Approach to Better School Meals

by Dana Woldow on August 27, 2012

Wouldn’t it be great if many good causes – feeding hungry kids, organic farming, fighting global warming, growing small local businesses – could all be supported by school meal programs? In a perfect world, every worthy goal could benefit from these government funds. In the real world, underfunding of school meals by Congress means that schools must prioritize to ensure scarce resources are going towards feeding the most kids, and that means student needs trump other noble causes.

How does this prioritizing work? Think of a field archery target; the yellow bulls-eye carries the highest score. Additional concentric rings – red, blue, black and white – encircle the bulls-eye, gaining in size, but lessening in importance, as they move further from the center.

The bulls-eye represents students who get government paid school meals; eligibility for these meals is based on family income. These low-income students, most at risk for malnutrition, are the first priority, because poor nutrition hampers the ability to learn. If doing what is best for these students’ nutrition conflicts with doing what is best for someone else, this group’s interests come first.

The next concentric ring is red, representing students who do not qualify for government paid meals. Their priority is lower not because they are of less importance than their low income peers, but because their families generally have more resources to provide their children with a lunch from home. In any conflict between doing what best serves the students in the bulls-eye vs the students in the red ring, the target approach prioritizes the bulls-eye.

For example, it is well known that older students receiving government paid meals feel stigmatized when school cafeterias offer multiple choices of “a la carte” meals and snacks to paying students, while limiting the choices for those receiving free lunch to one or two standard meals. Middle class students offered many choices may refer to the meager choices on the free lunch line as “welfare food,” driving some low income students to skip lunch entirely rather than self-identify as poor in front of their peers. Low participation in the free meal line further stigmatizes those whose only choice is to eat that lunch, or go hungry.

Sometimes it is suggested that students able to buy their lunch should be offered additional, possibly higher quality choices, which would not be available to those without money. These choices could take the form of fundraising food sales at lunchtime, parking food trucks close to schools to sell their wares to the affluent, or selling high quality “a la carte” all-organic meals only to those able to pay $6 or more per lunch.

However beneficial it may be to more affluent students to have these additional choices available to them at school, offering more desirable meals only to those who can afford to pay for them further stigmatizes those who cannot pay. It makes it harder for the lower income students to want to eat the meals which are available to them, instead causing them to reject those meals in favor of hunger. Using the target approach, school districts like San Francisco’s offer additional choices to all students regardless of whether they pay for their meals or get free lunch.

Beyond the red ring is the blue ring, representing adult stakeholders in the school – parents, cafeteria workers and custodians, teachers, Principals, and other school district staff. After the students, these adults represent the next highest priority. However, the target approach does not put adult needs before the needs of either group of students.

For example, some schools are reluctant to support “breakfast in the classroom” programs, which have been proven to increase the number of kids starting the day with a healthy meal. Teachers may fear extra waste, classroom mess, and more work either for themselves or for the custodians. Despite the fact that breakfast in the classroom operates successfully without such problems in many school districts around the country, fears and concerns may persist.

In a perfect world, school meal programs would be structured to work best for both school staff and students, but when it is not possible to meet the needs of both groups, the students have higher priority. Schools should not be dissuaded from offering “breakfast in the classroom” just because custodians, or teachers, or Principals think it might generate more garbage, or cause the occasional classroom spill. Instead, the target approach respectfully addresses adult concerns, but prioritizes student needs.

Past the blue ring lies the black ring, comprised of adults who are not school district stakeholders, but who have some involvement in school meal programs. These include farmers who grow the food served to students, those who write and those who enforce the USDA regulations for school meals, companies selling prepackaged school meals, and food service management companies capable of running a school district’s entire nutrition department. Again, in a perfect world, the needs of farmers, especially those small scale operations growing food in a sustainable manner and located close to schools, would receive equal priority with everyone in the inner rings (gold, red and blue), but pinched resources may preclude that.

For example, students should be offered the healthiest food a meal program can afford to serve. This means that they should get an apple with lunch, and not a processed apple turnover. The US Department of Agriculture, which oversees school meal programs, used to make such turnovers available to schools for 4 cents apiece, as a way of using up commodity apples at the end of the season.

This turnover, beloved by student nutrition directors because it satisfied two of the five food groups required for a government-paid meal, also packed a wallop of fat and sugar, with precious little fruit. A fresh apple might cost five times as much as the turnover, but it is entirely fruit, with no fat or added sugar, and full of fiber too.

In a perfect world, a sustainably grown apple from a small local farm would cost the same as a conventionally grown apple of no specific provenance, but that is rarely the case; the organic apple usually costs quite a bit more. Schools typically have a little less than half of their budget to spend on food, with the rest going to labor and overhead. A government payment of about $3 to cover the cost of a free lunch yields about $1.35 to spend on food. For a school serving a lower cost generic apple, switching to the more expensive politically correct apple means some other part of the school meal budget must be reduced. This in turn generally means lower quality food elsewhere on the menu (negatively impacting the kids in the gold and red rings) or slashing labor costs (negatively impacting adults in the blue ring).

As much as a school meal program might want to serve the organic apple, what students need is an apple, instead of an apple turnover. In a perfect world, the small farmers growing the sustainable apple could count on financial support from nearby school meal programs, but when underfunded meal programs can’t afford the justifiably higher cost of a sustainably grown apple, the fiscally responsible compromise that prioritizes the students in the red and gold rings, and cafeteria workers in the blue ring, is a generic apple instead of a turnover.

Schools can still offer nutrition education which promotes local farms through Farm to School programs, without impacting school meal budgets. According to the USDA website:

In addition to procurement activities, food, agriculture and nutrition-based educational efforts that span a whole host of hands-on experiential activities, such as school gardens, field trips to local farms, and cooking classes, are also included in the concept of farm to school. Standards-based curriculum often integrates as well.

Farthest away from the center of the target, and with the lowest priority, is the white ring comprised of everyone else – from those wanting to involve school meal programs in fighting global warming, to Big Food companies viewing school meals as an opportunity to sell cheap processed food to a captive audience, or media profiteers interested in school food only to the extent that there is a buck to be made from creating entertainment around it. In a budget climate which leaves schools with less than $1.50 to spend on the food portion of a lunch for a low income student, and with new USDA regulations mandating more costly fruits, vegetables, and whole grains kicking in this year, the folks in this ring can take a number and get in line. There are many others whose interests come before theirs.

Some may feel that separating groups into concentric circles of priority is building walls when schools should be building bridges. That sounds warm and fuzzy, but the reality is that without clear cut priorities, the least empowered and most vulnerable groups, those without a voice – in this case, low income children, often of color – are usually the last to be considered. Those who think it is “helping” to bring trendy food trucks to schools to sell organic bahn mi sandwiches to those high school kids who can afford them, are missing the point that when everyone with a few bucks can pop out to a nearby food truck for lunch, the lowest income kids are left behind to slink off to the cafeteria for their meal of shame, or else go hungry.

It’s not that food truck supporters are actively trying to add to the stigma kids feel about eating school lunch, but that is the unintended consequence unless the needs of those low-income kids are prioritized. It’s not like champions of sustainable farming want to cause schools to have to cut cafeteria worker salaries to be able to afford the higher cost of organic produce, but where else would that money come from? These peripheral issues are just distractions from the primary goal of helping more students eat better school meals.

In field archery, an “end” is a group of arrows, usually six, shot at the target; a “perfect end” is one in which all six arrows hit the bulls-eye. Scoring a “perfect end” is challenging, because the visual clutter of the outer rings constantly distracts the archer’s eye from the center. Schools must block out such distractions and aim carefully to target every available resource to the bulls-eye to achieve their own “perfect end” – healthy and well-nourished students who are ready to learn.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.

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