May 02 2012

Untangling the Complicated Layers of School Food

Anyone who has watched Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, followed the recent "pink slime" food debacle, or rolled their eyes when pizza was deemed a vegetable, knows that school food has its fair share of problems. Anyone who has sat in a school cafeteria, whether as a student, parent, or visitor, knows that school food is frequently as unappetizing as the school cafeteria is loud. Lunchtime is viewed as a required diversion from test prep--and a bastion in the day for teachers to get a moment away from their students.

Lunch is where kids are dropped off, fed (or not) and then picked back up by their teachers 30 minutes later. Most of us do not consider the sheer number of factors, politics, and paperwork that go into making those 30 minutes happen each day, every day, 180 days out of the year, for the over 30 million children participating in the National School Lunch Program.

My own interest in school food was one of my original impetuses for leaving school counseling and forging a new path. If I tell someone that I'm interested in our current school food system, I inevitably receive a knowing nod and a comment like 'oh yeah, school food is a disaster; it needs to change'. And no matter the perspective on what makes it a disaster or what exactly needs to change there are very few people who'd respond to my comment by asking 'what's wrong with school food? What do you mean?"

Because the problems with school food are intrinsic to the existing system, it's easy to draw caricatures around those involved with school food: the principal too consumed with test scores to care about what the students are eating; the snarky lunch lady with an askew hairnet grumbling at the kids; the school administrator talking about budgets, not health; and the kids, who only want to eat junk food anyway.

The realities of school food aren't as clearcut as those school food stereotypes. Most people involved with school food are scrambling to serve breakfast and lunch everyday under incredible constraints.

The most obvious constraints derive from budgetary issues: not only are administrators limited by a final bottom line, but they're also limited by restrictions on what can be charged per child per meal. (A more detailed look here).

But administrators and school food directors must also treat students like customers, find ways to source their food in the cheapest ways possible, and figure out how to attract kids to their lunch line so they can qualify for reimbursements.

Parents are constrained by time and money, and the free-and-reduced eligibility lines that swiftly demarcate the haves from the have-nots (and have-less). Kids are constrained by the stigma of eating school food and eating 'healthy', as well as the short time span they have to eat lunch, much less savor their food. Even Congress is constrained by preceding legislative decisions, navigating nutritional standards, and school food amendments that operate in conflict with each other.

Hunter College sociology professor Jan Poppendieck deconstructs the systemic problems with school food in her exhaustive look at school food policy, "Free for All: Fixing School Food in America". "Our spectacular failure to provide fresh, appealing, healthy meals for all our children," Poppendieck notes, "is the result of a series of specific and identifiable social choices that we have made: a massive disinvestment in our public schools, an industrialized food system, an agricultural policy centered on subsides for large-scale commodity production, a business model rather than a public health approach to school food programs."

After looking at the evidence, it's impossible not to come to a startling but overwhelming conclusion: our current school food system is a spectacular failure.

I've had continual encounters with school food throughout my life, and with rare exceptions, none have been pleasant. In elementary school, I remember feeling intrigued by what was sold in lunch lines, but I rarely bought anything. My mom packed my lunch, and except on special pizza day, I never needed any school lunch (and never wanted it, except for the ice cream). In high school, my main memories of the cafeteria have nothing to do with food, but with the desperate need to find the right table to sit at in the first weeks: tables were unspokenly assigned and it was important to pick an area (and people) you wouldn't mind sitting with for most of the year. Again, I mostly packed, and even with a packed lunch I still barely had time to eat before our allotted lunch was up. In college, despite a wide buffet of options, I shied away from most choices, sticking to sandwiches and pasta. College food memories are full of socializing and hanging out as long we wanted (or could afford to before homework beckoned) but not of the food.

My exposure to school food deepened with my work as a school counselor. For a school counselor, lunchtime equals primetime, and so I witnessed firsthand the realities of the National School Lunch Program between the hours of 10:30 am and 1:30 pm each day. During lunch, I could meet with students without taking them out of class. Chatting with kids while they were eating (or not eating) was far from perfect, but it was a predictable, dedicated time to help children work through whatever was bothering them or their teachers.

At the end of each lunch session, my trashcan would overflow with food half-eaten or untouched. The kids would devour the cookie or fries but pick at everything else. Lunch sessions became especially tricky when some kids packed and others bought: food wasn't an equalizer, it was a divider and a reason to be unhappy or ashamed or jealous. We weren't all 'breaking bread' together in the same way.

Inevitably, the children buying lunch were always the same children. And as their school counselor, I had insight into their socio-economic background, behavior patterns, and home life. Children frequently bought school lunch because they didn't have a choice. The students were on a free or reduced plan, their parents couldn't afford either the time or money to pack, and eating free (or nearly free) school lunch was the only way to eat. Unfortunately, with the exception of french fries, the children who had packed were never jealous or envious of what these other children were buying. And even at the elementary school age, the students were aware of which kids bought and which kids packed. School food wasn't just a potential cause of childhood obesity, it was a social wedge and source of stigmatization and, to a certain extent, shame.

As a former student, I assumed school food was a given: we were required to be in school, so of course there's school food. The school food program we're familiar with today is the result of a century of tweaks and metamorphoses, evolving from something that was offered on a volunteer basis, to a program for children who could afford it, to a program currently tainted with a stigma of existing only for welfare children.

The modern system of school food finds its origins in the 1890s, coinciding with compulsory attendance laws. Food came from donated sources and volunteer labor. The federal government soon became involved, seeing school food as an arena for depositing food surpluses. When the management of food surpluses was transferred to the USDA, that agency inherited school food as well, a responsibility which it maintains today.

More order was brought to school food with the introduction of 1946's National School Lunch Act, which controlled food distribution through a formula related to the number of children in each state and that state's poverty. The act required that federal funds be matched by the state. Problems arose when schools ran out of federal funds before the year was up--and when the average contribution by the federal government dropped to 4.4 cents per meal, the program lost much of its effectiveness.

The 1960s marked the beginning of school food's 'warring' decades:

In its first decade, school food become part of "the war on poverty". Legislation authorized funding to reimburse schools in impoverished areas for up to 80% of all costs, not just food. Initially, no legal or operational definition was given to determine eligibility, leading to the system collapsing with fewer paying customers. This prompted Congress to overhaul the funding structure for lunch and breakfast, ultimately establishing uniform standards for eligibility in two categories, "free" and "reduced".

With the advent of shelf-stable processed foods, the 1970s was marked by "the war on waste." The rapid rise of food prices coincided with a rapid increase in demand for free and reduced lunch. Schools began contracting food service to private companies, in an effort to produce quicker, more shelf-stable food that met meal pattern requirements. Unfortunately, this shelf-stable food didn't result in nutritionally-sound meals.

With the 1980s "war on spending," school food came to be seen as a welfare-oriented program. President Reagan authorized Congress to raise allowable prices for reduced price meals, terminate non-food assistance, and reduce the amount of funds per meal by more than one-third. Thousands of children paying for full-price meals dropped out of the program.

The last of these four decades of war was the 1990s' "war on fat". During the 80s, dairy and meat became a mainstay on school menus, after regulations changed and schools were allowed to order dairy products in unlimited quantities. The School Meals Initiative (SMI) launched to improve the nutritional profile of commodities donated to schools.

The continual ebb and flow of funding, sourcing, and nutritional profiles has led to a system that's severely hindered by its history. There are many items that need to change in order for school food to be an appealing choice for children and an integral part of a school curriculum, including school food sourcing, school facilities, eligibility requirements, and funding.

School food was born from a need to funnel surplus commodities into an appropriate arena. Today, commodity donations supply one-fifth of school food. The other four-fifths come from a direct manufacturer broker.

Commodities are important to the bottom line of a school's food budget, and school food directors must choose commodities with care. Schools choose both entitlement commodities and bonus commodities. There's a frequently held belief that the commodities provided to schools are high fat, unhealthy options; in the past, this criticism was true, especially in the 1970s when schools were encouraged to buy dairy and beef to help with the overwhelming dairy surplus. Today, schools choose among 180 commodity products. If you just looked at that number on its own, it might seem shocking that schools wouldn't choose healthier options, but because directors pay the same delivery cost for a case of "high-value" vs "low-value" products (like fruit and vegetables), many schools choose high-value foods like meat and dairy in an effort to cut costs. They also choose shelf-stable items and items that can easily be processed into a value added commodity.

Of course, as more directors opt for processed products, a cycle perpetuates--fewer states order raw ingredients, whole foods cease to be available, and the facilities to prep these foods either become obsolete or are not built.

This means that even if a school wanted to cook a meal based around whole foods, they might not have the facilities in which to do so. This is especially common in urban environments, where entire schools would have to be remodeled to meet fire safety codes. In addition, most schools' food service workers have been trained to unpack and reheat, not to cook from scratch. As a cost cutting measure, many schools have redesigned school food work schedules to prevent employees from qualifying for insurance or pensions. These labor decisions drive another cyclical effect: because so many positions are short hour and unskilled, school food jobs are not attracting a motivated person seeking a fulfilling career.

As school food programs struggle to source and prep food each day, they are faced with confusing, nearly impossible to meet nutrition standards.

In order to qualify for reimbursements, lunches must supply one-third of the recommended dietary allowances for calories (RDAs), without exceeding the proportion of fat recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans: no more than 30% of calories from fat of any type.

School food providers are left with difficult dilemmas. If they increase the size of an entree to meet the calorie minimums, a bigger portion could push the meal over the allotted 30% fat marker. And because most schools are barely breaking even, they can't buy local fruit and vegetables to increase calories. Instead, school systems offer food in silly "work-arounds" like low-fat puddings that add calories without adding fat, or accompanying a box of cereal that doesn't weigh enough by adding a cheese square with the cereal.

All school food meals, even 'full price', are subsidized. The average subsidy is $2.57 for free meals and $0.24 for full meals. In order to be deemed eligible for a reduced or free meal, parents must fill out paperwork and apply each year. This application process is frequently confusing and doesn't account for nuances and shifts in income, like medical bills or mortgage payments.

Even when a child is approved to receive free or reduced lunch, many families can't overcome the stigma associated with school lunch. Stigma deters a family from even applying and certainly deters children from participating.

"A la carte" foods offered at many schools strongly contribute to the processed form and strange nutritional work-arounds school meals take, as well as to the struggles for reimbursement and the stigma in buying school lunch. So-called competitive foods are foods like Papa Johns, Taco Bell, sodas, and vending machines. The USDA has always declined to regulate the sale of competitive foods, saying that such matters lie within the province of local school officials. When pushbacks have occurred by parents and communities, both soft drink companies and schools lost revenue and lobbied Congress to allow competitve foods to be sold at any time and place, provided that the proceeds went to the school. The USDA allows anything to be sold that meets a minimal nutritional value: if a candy bar has one nut in it, that's good enough to meet the standards.

A la carte ordering only makes the stigma of buying school lunch worse. Competitive foods frequently have separate lines and sometimes even separate seating areas. Reimbursable school food is tailored to resemble a la carte offerings because if food were different in the main line versus a la carte, participation would decline even further. As Poppendieck explains:

"A director cannot charge enough for a school lunch to cover the cost of producing it, so he must sell a la carte to make up the difference. But if he sells a la carte, he sets up an unofficial standard by which the official lunch can be prepared if there's too great a difference, he will lose participation in that program, defeating his fundamental purpose."

Recent state budget cuts have meant that schools have had to cut costs and make money. This leads them to introduce more a la carte options and replace fresh food with bulk and convenience choices. Prepared foods can more easily and more quickly meet federal nutritional policy; in fact, many processed foods come with a Child Nutrition label (CN), specifying the parts of the meal plan that they supply. Of course, these calorie minimums are an exercise in futility, as they can't take into account age, grade, height, or metabolism. This kind of measurement encourages production of measurable items and neglects other, less measurable factors. Nutrition isn't a reductive science: you can't tease out nutrients from a whole food, put them back in processed foods, and expect the health results to be the same. What about other concerns related to personal and environmental health? Factors like pesticides, hormones, GMOs, and even taste. There's no room to see food as an interconnected system if we just focus on calorie counted packaged foods.

As we find ourselves firmly in the 21st century, there are small, passionate movements forming across the country, each working to change parts of the school food system. When I first left school counseling, I worked with an organization that I'm still supportive of, the Farm to School movement. Farm to School's goal is to help improve school food through connection, taste, and flavor. Rather than just choosing a food because it's there, Farm to School aims to have children really understand food and have a vested interest in it because they know how it grows, they've met the farmers, and they've tasted the whole--not processed--food in a variety of preparations.

Other organizations and individuals with a vision for how to positively change children's relationship to food include Food Corps, School Food FOCUS, and inspirational individuals like Ann Cooper, who transformed the Berkeley meal program, and Bertrand Weber, Minneapolis Public School's director of Nutrition Services.

The work of these groups and individuals is vitally important, but these small movements are attempting to slowly transform a much larger institutional problem.

Poppendieck believes that the first problem to address is school food's three-tier system, and the resulting stigma of free and reduced lunch. To eliminate this stigma, reduce paperwork, and free up time to focus on creating appetizing, healthy meals, she advocates for eliminating the three-tier system and offering a universal free meal. While offering a universal free meal, she urges the parallel need to focus on the quality of food, control competitive foods, and focus on educational tie-ins.

Poppendieck argues that moving to universal free meals would benefit poor children because they wouldn't eat in shame, and it would benefit middle income children for whom healthy school meals could become the norm. She quotes Harvard professor David Ellwood: "Society wants to use its limited resources wisely so it doesn't want to provide money or assistance to people who don't need it, but if the poor are singled out for differential treatment, the effect is to isolate them." Benefits would would extend to food service staff, who could cook instead of completing paperwork.

Offering free food for all seems to temporarily take care of one negative aspect of school food: the stress around eligibility and reimbursement and the accompanying stigma of eating school food for free.

But taking care of this one angle seems to put the cart before the horse: I don't think we can offer free food for all before we first fix the other negatives of school food. Offering 'free for all' before creating systems to address food sourcing, before structuring education around nutritional tie-ins, before shifting our focus to nutritious processed foods, before improving our facilities, will result in the same stratified groups of children buying and packing lunch, whether they're paying for it or not. Unless you actually force children to eat school food and not pack, any attempt at "universalizing" lunch without improving cafeterias and the food they serve will simply leave the children who are currently buying free and reduced lunch eating free lunch, while the packers keep packing. The stigma will remain.

We need to tackle several large problems before we think about offering all children free lunch:

* Where does school food come from in this broken system?

* What of the schools that don't have proper facilities to cook fresh food, or lack staff that know how to?

* Are kids required to eat the school food? Can we make the food enticing enough for kids to want to eat?

We need to focus on improving food sourcing, food quality, infrastructure, and worker training. These are not easy problems to fix, but before we move to a 'free for all' system, I want schools to have a lunch staff that knows how to cook and store fresh food, a staff that's respected and properly compensated. Most of all, I want to see a national school lunch program using its incredible buying power to change the face of commodities offered and types of food sourced, especially when it comes to meat and dairy.

"If you were responsible for 7 billion meals a year," Poppendieck writes, "imagine the impact you could have on our ecosystem, economy, and processes used to raise and slaughter." Let's move beyond a system of school food that needs change, to a system that drives change.