What to Do With School Lunches?

PH2010061003183 The House Education and Labor Committee has been holding hearings on school lunch programs and child nutrition. The $8 billion bill, Nutrition for America’s Children Act of 2010, would increase funding for school lunch programs and child nutrition. 

La Vida Locavore has excellent summaries of the hearings here and here. Tom Colicchio, the celebrity chef, provided testimony at one of the hearings. CNN talked with him about his testimony. More background on the hearings can be found at ABC, the Washington Post, and Tapped.

Most members of the committee seem to agree about the facts. Kids are getting substandard food at school. It's too salty and fatty. Children who are in poverty are even more likely to be obese, because they are eating the wrong foods. There is a correlation between school performance and access to quality food.

The debate is about parental responsibility and money.

Providing a healthy lunch is costly. Alice Waters said that schools needed to spend $5 per kid to provide them with a proper meal. The money would have to go retraining staff, getting access to fresh foods, and purchasing new equipment. Schools need new equipment, so they can steam vegetables instead of frying them. Where's that money going to come from in this economy? Will healthy lunches be simply too expensive. and kids who don't qualify for the school lunch program won't be able to afford the meal?

Should the government be telling parents and kids what to eat? Should food stamps be limited to healthy foods? If kids want french fries, why not give it to them? 

I'm pessimistic about this bill going further in this crappy economy. Schools are struggling to maintain other basic services in schools right now. Tater tots and hot dogs are the least of their problems.

There are other low cost solutions. Schools should provide nutritional charts about each meal that is served in the cafeteria. If McDonald's has to tell you how many calories are in a Big Mac, then the school should tell parents how many calories are in a corn dog. (Yes, my kid's school serves the kids corn dogs and mozzarella sticks for lunch.) They should allow parents into the cafeteria to see what their kids are eating. They should teach parents about packing a healthy lunch.

The PTAs really need to step up in this area. They can demand the school provide nutritional information. If the school menu says that there are salads available for kids, they need to make sure that those salads actually appear on the line. They can sponsor "salad days" at school, instead of "pizza days." They need to hold the schools responsible for not fattening up the kids.

19 thoughts on “What to Do With School Lunches?

  1. They should teach parents about packing a healthy lunch.
    They better not. Now that I don’t smoke anymore, the whole point of being an adult is that nobody can sit me down and make me listen to a lesson unless they pay me or I expect to learn something that will get me paid.

  2. ok, mh, they can send you a convenient newsletter that you can ignore.
    So, what are school lunches substandard with respect to? What is the “standard?”

  3. ok, mh, they can send you a convenient newsletter that you can ignore.
    I am already used to ignoring letters from the school board.

  4. If anything, the labeling era has coincided with an era of decline in dietary health. While it would be unscientific to claim that labeling has caused the decline, there is certainly no evidence that it has reversed it. Possibly the decline may have been worse without all the labeling, but I’m skeptical and anti-labeling. Yes labels are on extremely unhealthy products, but are clearly ignored since such things continue to be widely consumed. Yes, it can indicate things that are marginally healthier, as long as they are packaged and mass-produced. Where are labels absent? On fresh fruits and vegetables, which are healthy and appealing. Furthermore, labeling requirements are an impediment to small producers interested in selling healthier prepared items either to retailers or into school lunch programs.
    Labeling does not change the status quo (i.e., dominance of agri-food industry). The agri-food industry may rail against labeling, but at the same time it completely controls and skews it. This is the same agri-food complex that will lose subsidies and contracts if the Alice Waters types succeed. Anyone who scoffs at Waters’ and Ray’s projects to change kids’ tastes and to build networks of farmers contract directly with school systems has caved in and is essentially siding with big business.

  5. Anyone who scoffs at Waters’ and Ray’s projects to change kids’ tastes and to build networks of farmers contract directly with school systems has caved in and is essentially siding with big business.
    You know who got food directly from farmers? Nazis, that’s who.

  6. Take the money from the military budget. Seriously, Americans have soooo much money to wage war and none for healthcare, education, maternity leaves and caring for the poor and elderly.

  7. Question:
    What is the current per-child expenditure? It would surprise me very much if it was much less than $5, if you count all expenses.
    Maybe it’s time to work more aggressively with vendors, maybe to have some sort of public food fair with samples before having a public meeting to get comments.

  8. The U.S. spends more on caring for the elderly than it does on defense. Something close to 40% of federal spending goes to SS or Medicare. The poor don’t get much.

  9. So, what are school lunches substandard with respect to? What is the “standard?”
    Substandard? Easy. Government “cheese.”
    (Is there a NYS law that it has to be included in every pb&j?)

  10. Well, my county has gone healthy in a big way. Result: #2 often won’t eat the food, does not get enough to eat. He is on strike. And quite wistful for the old days of deep fried mozzarella, or whatever.

  11. “Result: #2 often won’t eat the food, does not get enough to eat.”
    There you go, childhood obesity problem solved. Hope and change.

  12. I can’t believe labelling would be successful with kids, even if I thought it were a good idea. We want to make kids count calories now? That sounds nuts to me.
    Surely there’s a middle ground between all fresh and organic, and factory-created warned-over food. Most school lunches are no longer cooked on site at all, and there aren’t facilities any more. Of course they suck.

  13. I was surprised to learn that our middle school cafeteria staff cooks lunch on site. And the choices don’t sound horrible, though I’ll wait and see what my daughter has to say. The elementary school gets the food provided by Chartwells.

  14. I don’t understand libertarian objections to providing better food in school cafeterias. Right now, there is no choice in the school cafeteria line. It’s french fries or nothing. Wouldn’t libertarians like it if there was a choice of french fries OR a salad? Wouldn’t they like for parents to know about the nutritional content of food? It doesn’t cost anything to just let the parents know the calorie count of a burrito. Let the consumers make an informed choice.

  15. It doesn’t cost anything to just let the parents know the calorie count of a burrito.
    Wouldn’t requiring posted calorie counts work against having less processed food. Processed food has its nutritional information on the box but for fresh food someone will have to calculate.

  16. “Wouldn’t requiring posted calorie counts work against having less processed food. Processed food has its nutritional information on the box but for fresh food someone will have to calculate.”
    Right. Learner talked about the problems with labeling upthread. Labeling would be absolute murder for a small local vendor or a la carte set-up (our campus cafeteria has excellent a la carte omelet, pasta and stir fry stations). I’d personally prefer recipes rather than standard labeling information, plus maybe info on how long the food has been in storage since it was prepared. My sister is in food service and she told me that the food industry now sells “fresh” fruit cups that are supposed to last two weeks.
    Also, is it really the calories that are the problem with the burrito?
    On a related note, I’ve been lately rethinking my relationship to Yoplait. The stuff they have at our local HEB is mostly non-fat and artificially sweetened. While they are very creative with names for flavors (red velvet cake yogurt! upside-down cake!) the yogurt itself is pretty vile. I was doing a home taste-test recently comparing Yoplait’s 0% fat unsweetened Greek yogurt with Fage’s 2% Greek yogurt and I’m not sure why Yoplait even bothered. The Yoplait Greek yogurt was thoroughly nasty, even with honey added, while the Fage is mild and extremely creamy even without sweetener. The only thing wrong with the Fage yogurt is that it’s $3.88 a tub, and I can easily go through a whole tub a day. Paired with nectarines or cherries, it tastes like real food, which it is. Now, to persuade the kids to eat it…

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