Diverting young appetites from the siren call of salt, sweets & fats is a challenge that requires reform on many levels, starting with the school lunch programs. You’d think that, in a country where cooking is a top rated spectator sport, our kids lunches would amount to more than Cheeseburgers, Pizza and Chicken Nuggets, with PB&J Uncrustables thrown in as a vegetarian option. But you’d be wrong.
Those are real choices from the San Diego Unified School District’s Spring 2009 Secondary Lunch Menu, which, by the way, has just been recognized as one of the better operations nationally. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a national nonprofit organization that promotes healthy diets, named nutrition services director Gary Petill as a winner in their 2009 Golden Carrot Awards.
Before you go off cursing Petill (who has made significant improvements, particularly with offering more vegetarian options) or the School District, it’s imperative to examine the Big Picture. In the school lunch world everybody’s in favor of better nutrition. After all, nobody wants to be against kids or good health, right?
The Obama administration seems inclined to support significant changes, including additional funding and upgrading school food nutrition standards this year, many of which haven’t been changed for nearly 15 years. This fall Congress will be considering updating Federal mandates that shape the affordability and content of school lunch programs nationally.
San Diego Congresswoman Susan Davis sits on the House Committee on Education and Labor, which will be shepherding the bill, known as the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2009 (H.R. 1324) through hearings. The legislation, which is reauthorized every five years, provides $12 billion to pay for lunch and breakfast for 31 million schoolchildren.
I sent her a bunch of questions about school lunch programs. Her office responded with the following:
“Nutrition plays an important role in the ability to learn,” said Congresswoman Susan Davis. “It’s harder to sit still after sugary snacks, such as candy of soda. We would all like to see healthy meals for children in schools with more focus fresh fruits and vegetables. With the disturbing recent trends in childhood obesity rates, it is clear action is needed to get our children healthier.”
Here are those disturbing trends, as defined by the US Department of Agriculture:
**More than 60 percent of Americans are either overweight or obese. This puts them at risk for other serious health problems like diabetes.
**The numbers for children are no less troubling. An estimated 17 million children in the U.S. are either overweight or obese.
**About 35 percent of young people are at risk of overweight or are already overweight.
The quest for better school nutrition will take to America’s airwaves this winter as ABC has teamed up with British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to work with local officials to bring healthy food to America’s fattest city: Huntington, West Virginia. The city and nearby rural counties boast an obesity rate of almost 50 percent. It’s also one of the top regions for diet-related diseases; almost one-quarter of residents have heart disease and 13 percent have diabetes. Oliver’s British TV shows, including “Jamie’s School Dinners” are credited with convincing the Tony Blair’s Tory government to substantially increase funding for food, facilities and training.
Then there are the other guys that want to help improve school lunches: agribusiness and food processing giants eager to make sure that “healthy choices” include a broad representation of their product lines. The USDA allows school districts to divert their government-donated foods to commercial processors and receive table-ready items instead of raw products. Today, schools divert about half of their commodities to processors. Over 150 companies — from Tyson to Jennie-O Turkey — process commodity items for school cafeterias, raking in the money while turning raw chicken into nuggets, strips and breaded patties.
To get a better idea of what’s on the table here let’s go back in time a few weeks and visit the School Nutrition Associations’ Annual National Conference held in Las Vegas just a couple of months ago. Things got off to a quick start on June 29th with an awards ceremony that featured look alike versions of Sonny & Chef (circa 1970) and, of course, the King himself, handing out awards to honorees from over 40 states. Things got a little edgy when Elvis appeared, but the lunch ladies managed to restrain themselves.
After the awards ceremony, it was just a few short steps to the Mandalay Bay Exhibit Hall, where the sizzle and excitement rivaled anything on “the Strip.” At least if you were an SNA member. Hundreds of exhibitors, offering everything from food items to software, peddled their wares, hoping to lure attendees with free samples, spec sheets and high tech demonstrations. As one blogger described it:
Every summer, thousands of lunch ladies flock to the show to sample the newest industry products for school lunch. They stroll through over 800 booths, tasting everything from popcorn chicken and mini cheeseburgers, to whole-grain doughnuts and blue-raspberry slushees. Forget flipping through cookbooks — today, this is the menu planning process for your kid’s school cafeteria.
If you want a bird’s eye view of the problems plaguing school food, this is the place to go. The expo boasted 40 booths showcasing ice cream, cakes, cookies, puddings and other desserts. Over 20 booths peddled poultry (mostly breaded) and 20 more featured beef products. Pizza showed up at 12 booths. Fresh fruits and vegetables showed up at only 10.
Some of this year’s high points were:
**Anybody for some Crazy Apples? Mmmmm, tasty! They come in flavors like Bubble Gum, Cotton Candy and Tropical Blast. They count as a serving of fresh fruit. With no, by the way, added sugar!
**Or how about some Butter Mist, providing the added flavor of butter with no fat, cholesterol or calories?
**Want to meet half your fruit & vegetable requirements the easy way? Serve the kiddies Polish Water Ice, with no fat, no dairy, no cholesterol, no peanut oil and fewer than 140 calories. There’s no extra charge for the corn syrup, artificial flavors and red dye #40.
**Concerned about corn syrup? Fear not! The Corn Refiner’s Association (one of the show sponsors) passed out pamphlets titled “High Fructose Corn Syrup — Making Healthy Foods Affordable for America’s School Children.” And nobody wants to “seriously jeopardize and/or eliminate the supply of numerous offerings” in school lunch programs.
The popularity of processed foods being served in school lunchrooms goes beyond the marketing pitches aimed at School Districts. Budget restraints have forced most districts into the position of not actually having either the staffing or the equipment to prepare healthy meals from scratch. A 2009 survey by the School Nutrition Association established that over 80 percent of schools prepare less than half of their main dishes from scratch; 40 percent of schools cook less than one-fourth of their entrees from scratch.
Taxpayers aren’t really given much choice when it comes to eliminating agri-business subsidies and tax credits—those bills before Congress are rarely questioned by otherwise tight fisted fiscal conservatives. So it’s much easier to reduce taxation needed by local school systems, who respond by tightening their belts and relying on shortcuts provided by the industries that benefit the most from those “untouchable” taxpayer subsidies. It’s “win, win” for everybody but the students.
Because the staffing and equipment involved in feeding students are typically considered as an element of the “maintenance” part of a school districts’ budgetary process, it’s easier to reign in spending on school lunches than it is on classroom activities. That’s why many schools lack stoves and other equipment needed to produce healthy lunches. Hence the “heat and serve” mentality that is the status quo in school lunch rooms.
Then there’s the bottom line: money. Schools are expecting to receive $2.68 from the USDA in the coming year to pay the costs (The rate varies, depending on poverty level and region.) of free student lunch programs. Not all of that money covers food costs. School districts can and do spend those USDA dollars on everything from cleaning supplies to salaries. The School Nutrition Association would like to see another seventy cents added to the subsidies this year. Other activists would like to see the total amount increased even more.
Those other activists include Ann Cooper, the director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District in California (better known as the “Renegade Lunch Lady”) and Slow Food USA. Founded in Italy in 1986 in response to the opening of a McDonald’s store, the organization has spread worldwide, with over 83,000 members and chapters in 122 countries. Their goal is to support “good, clean, and fair” food by focusing on local food and its traditions.
On Labor Day, Slow Food USA will formally launch its Time for Lunch campaign with nearly three hundred “Eat-Ins” scheduled all over the country. Modeled on the sit-ins of the 60s, these Eat-Ins are potluck picnics to raise awareness.
In San Diego, events will include:
**Urban San Diego Slow Food Potluck Picnic at World Beat Center in Balboa Park on Monday, September 7, from 11 am to 2 pm Email to RSVP:
** Eat-In San Diego Art Institute, September 4, 2009, 7650 Mission Valley Road
San Diego, California 92108. Email to RSVP:
** Del Mar, CA Eat-In, September 7, 2009, Noon to 4pm, San Dieguito Park (Area 3) Email to RSVP: email@example.com
** National City, CA Eat-In, September 7, 2009, 2505 N Ave.,
Email to RSVP: firstname.lastname@example.org
Like I said, everybody’s in favor of better school lunches. Actually doing something about better school lunches is another matter altogether. I’ll be at Balboa Park on Labor Day.