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School Lunch, Opportunity for Change?

School Lunch, Opportunity for Change?

There’s a vigorous and healthy debate going on in the blogosphere about school lunch. Congress is gearing up to revise the Child Nutrition and WIC act, which includes the school lunch program, and the forces of Hope and Change have ideas. (Click through to the actual essays linked, my summaries necessarily oversimplify.)

Alice Waters started the debate on the NY Times Op-Ed page, advocating that we double the lunch subsidy from $2.17 to $5.00. She also, no surprise, wants a program that works with farmers to get organic local produce into schools, and advocates rebuilding school kitchens.

This suggestion, particularly the price tag, has set off something of a storm. There’s a new-ish blog called the Internet Food Association, which seems to be a bunch of policy wonks who are also interested in food, and who are cross-pollinating the argument by bringing economics and policy experience into the debate. Tom Lee takes on Alice’s argument, and in particular, her price point, here in a piece entitled The Pretentious is the Enemy of the Good. Ezra Klein, writing on the same blog, has a slightly different take, one that I think includes my favorite quote:

Cooking is more useful than dodgeball proficiency — particularly as you get older. But schools have dodgeball courts. I cook more often than I play the clarinet. But my school had a music room. We have to decide whether it’s worth the expenditure, but integrating kitchens into schools is not crazy on its face.

Tom Philpott, over at Grist, does a good summation of the argument. He’s curious, as am I, about why the mere suggestion that we spend five bucks on lunch for kids gets people so riled up. And it’s Philpott who keeps floating my favorite suggestion — a program for endebted cooking school grads based on Teach for America — trade the enthusiasm and skill of newly trained chefs for some debt relief and the opportunity to demonstrate that they can run a good kitchen on a budget.

What’s my take? I live in a small town. We have two elementary schools (one that shares a building with the middle school) and a high school. We have a population of people who could easily work in school lunchrooms, competantly making lunch every day. We still have a pretty low unemployment rate, but a lot of people are in extremely low-wage jobs and would be happy to trade up for a nice safe school district job, especially if we could find a way to provide insurance. I also live in an area where there is an easy supply of local meat (including game in the fall) and where agricultural education is already part of the curriculum. It would not be a big stretch to get kids throughout our entire district involved in the production end of the food system, many of them already are (or have extended family who are ranchers).

If we had real kitchens in schools again, and gardens, and some vibrant connection to the ranching community in which we live, we could build a curriculum around food that would teach all sorts of useful skills. Cooking for one, which as anyone who has read this blog for more than five minutes realizes is a big cause for me. Cooking with kids is a proven way to get them to expand their food preferences, and you learn a lot of school skills when you cook. Math and measurement and ratios and temperatures –what is cooking but one big science experiment? Get kids in the kitchen, let them help figure out budgets and decide what to cook for their schoolmates. Have them write recipes and menus and “advertise” their lunch day in the school paper. Get high school kids in the kitchen as interns — we’re not a district where it’s assumed everyone is going to college — give a kid a chance to learn a useful skill.

I don’t know, I don’t see any downside except that this means being more involved. I cannot see any upside to feeding our kids the crap we’re currently feeding them. And frankly, if we’re going to stimulate some areas of the economy, why not stimulate farmers and cooks and teachers and people who want to be passionately involved rather than stimulating the big food processors and delivery companies who think that battered chicken shards formed in patties are an actual food product?