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?

13 thoughts on “School Lunch, Opportunity for Change?

  1. It fascinates me that in the 19 years since I was in school that there aren’t full kitchens in them anymore. When I was a kid there were cooks and real kitchens in every school I went to. The food wasn’t fantastic but it was all prepared there and there was an actual dietian employed by the districts.

    Now you go in most school “kitchens” and all there are in there are warming cabinets. And even worse is a lot of them don’t even use reuseable trays anymore. They use polystyrene throw away trays so the money they ‘save’ on the crappy celophane wrapped food goes to pay for polluting the landscape with more trash. Lovely.

    What the heck happened?!

    Where is the idea that a real kitchen and cooks in a school are a luxury coming from?

  2. I know! Remember lunch ladies? There was real food in schools when I was a kid — sure the green beans were canned, but the “goulash” (beef & mac with tomato sauce) was made by the lunch ladies. And they’d give you greif if you didn’t take the nutritious stuff … bring back the lunch ladies.

  3. Wait.. there aren’t kitchens in schools these days? Wow. Even Big Machine daycare has a real kitchen with real food.

    I like your idea. It wouldn’t work everywhere, but it sounds like a great idea for your town! I’m a fan of local solutions, because that sort of thing is possible.

    I’m also against Alice Water’s idea — the idea of spending all that on organic is totally missing the mark. Cheap produce solves so much. And so does having tasty food! Dr. Bruce Ames gives a great lecture about organic vs non-organic, and has excellent data to back it up. (His point isn’t that organic is bad, just that the benefits of fruits and vegetables are so great, that it’s doing the poor of the world a disservice to push organic when they would be better off just eating twice as many fruits and vegetables of *any* kind.)

  4. Jamie Oliver, the Brit TV cook and personality, did a series called “Jamie’s School Dinners” (dinner = midday meal) a year or two ago, in which he tried to get real food back into UK schools. He cooked in the school kitchens (minimal), trying to stay within their budget, but using actual ingredients instead of processed frozen cr*p that the lunch ladies just had to heat up. He ignited a ferocious national conversation, not least because he wasn’t always successful – not only were the schools not set up for cooking, but the kids didn’t like the real food because they’d been so trained to fast food and processed stuff. I only saw a few episodes thanks to a friend who writes about food and had dubs, but they were fascinating.

  5. According to Philpott: “Starting in the Reagan era, the federal government stopped funding school kitchen equipment. From that time on, cafeterias had to finance themselves through sales of food. As a result, schools began to turn kitchens into reheating centers for stuff like prefab chicken nuggets. Once staffed by trained cooks, cafeterias became the domain of button-pushing clerks. A generation of school children was thus exposed to flavorless, nutritionally empty food. ”

    I forwarded the Grist/Philpott article to the former food service director at the college where I work. She told me: “Ten years ago when I was in charge of Food Services our stove (large industrial type) went out, so we couldn’t cook. I went and bought a very nice large range from Sears for $800.00 and had it put in. Health Dept. comes along – says NO to stove. Only option – spend $16-18,000. for an industrial stove. College says NO to that. So our cooking was stopped, and all we could do from then on was deep fry, microwave and grill. Not real healthy, huh??”

  6. Take a lesson from the French whose children sit down to three course lunches of salads and soups, meat/fish and vegetables and a little desert.
    They believe that children should be taught to enjoy real food from the moment their bodies can digest it
    That’s how you raise a bon viveur!

  7. PS the verification words reqd in order to leave comments are becoming as obfuscated as the computer viruses that I analyse! I am begining to think they’re passing on coded messages! Or do I need new glasses?

  8. so, Charlotte, here’s a q. re school gardens: you, like me, live in a climate where the outdoor growing season is short and pretty much coincides with kids being out o school for the summer. i can envision kids being taught how to start seed in the spring in cold frames or a greenhouse, and harvesting i the fall – but what’s your proposal for the summer when the kids are not in school? a paid school gardener? a parent volunteer? this is one of my stumbling blocks re the Edible Schoolyard – it works in a place that has a year-round growing season, but most of the country is not so fortunate, and i don’t see how to keep it going/keep kids engaged, when they are not there, without an expenditure of some additional capital, either $$ or goodwill, that the schools may not possess.

  9. I am still stewing over this debate. Last time I checked, the British were going to make cooking mandatory in their schools. Probably worth checking on that again. The “wonks” at the Internet Food Association strike me as a bit naive. I couldn’t help thinking as I read their stuff that they probably never had kids. Since I’ve been quite involved with the local schools as a volunteer, a garden builder and a school garden advocate, I have many thoughts on the subject I haven’t quite sorted through yet. But I think teaching kids to eat well (perhaps better than federal prisoners) is a more important endeavor than building a garden on the White House lawn. Just dumping surplus carbs on children hardly seems adequate.

  10. Our district has a central kitchen which cooks food for all the schools. So while it’s true that each individual school building only has a reheating station, that station is re-heating locally-made food. That seems to me to be an excellent solution.

    $5/kid is insane. You do know that a week is being cut from the end of our school year because the state is broke, right? I would rather make my son’s lunch myself & use that extra 5 bucks/day to fund his education.

  11. This is a very good idea, but when you get to major urban areas, you will run into more than just minor problems. For growing your own school garden, guess what, kids who have to go to summer school can help there, not enough kids to help? have some of the parents come down and help, as it is benefiting their kids. If such is the case, guess what, then the kids can come down and help too.
    I had no idea the schools had lost the ability to cook on site, but a central cooking facility makes a lot of sense in light of the expense of individual facilities. I sure would have missed meeting the lunch ladies.
    As a last thought on this, why are more kids not brown bagging it at school? I remember learning that skill as an adult, and it was not always a good thing, especially when I forgot to make something to eat the night before, and could not afford lunch the next day. Cooking I learned as a kid though, as Mom worked 2 jobs, and I got the job as chef. Can’t complain there though, as I am fair to meddling at it.
    Last thought here, does this mean the class home economics no longer exists? no more the smell of cooking cake wafting down the hall in the day at school, and no more learning to cook there either? Tis a sad day indeed if such is the case.

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