School Lunch Bunch

news3A look at school food reform with author Janet Poppendieck

School food in America is no picnic. Instead, it’s a messy web of federally subsidized programs with fair intentions but far from perfect outcomes.

Every five years, the Child Nutrition Act (CNA), which was instated in the ’60s to regulate the National School Lunch Program (NSLP)’s nutritional standards, comes up for reauthorization—originally due last September, the act’s rewrite continues to be pushed back. Meanwhile, a movement for school food reform has gained momentum across the country, including here in Santa Cruz. Last fall, Good Times explored the nutritional troubles with school meals in the cover story “What’s For Lunch?” Now, as the deadline for reauthorization nears, we take a look at the other side of the issue with New York-based author Janet Poppendieck, who discussed her new book, “Free For All: Fixing School Food in America” at a gathering of more than 70 Santa Cruz County educators, politicians and community members at a Feb. 5 event in Watsonville.

What we are feeding our children at school—a record number of whom are participating in the NSLP due to the economy’s affect on families—has taken center stage as word spreads that one in three American children are overweight or obese, and one in three will develop type II diabetes, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. But reform advocates are fighting for more than just an overhaul of the school meal menu. According to Poppendieck, some of the biggest flaws in the school feeding system are the social stigmas it attaches to children from low-income families, the inefficient administrational load it creates, and the widespread sale of what are called “competitive foods.”

A Social Problem

The government’s school lunch and school breakfast programs serve more than 7 billion meals a year. These and the four other subsidized feeding programs operate on a three-tier system that divides children into three categories: those who qualify for free, reduced-price, or full-price meals, depending on their family’s income.

“The depth of the subsidy and thus the size of the reimbursement depend on income eligibility,” Poppendieck writes in her book. “Full-price meal” is notably misleading, as schools also receive a small reimbursement for the meals purchased at “full-price.” However, she tells GT, “about 60 percent [of school meals] currently served are in the free and reduced-price category.”

She says that the three-tier system takes a serious social toll in most school lunchrooms, attaching a negative stigma to the food and the children who eat it for free or a reduced price.

“The law is very clear that students can’t be overtly identified by different color lunch tickets, for example, but it’s very hard to keep that information truly private,” Poppendieck says. “Some schools have elaborate pin number or swipe card systems where it’s less obvious, but even then the child whose parent has to go through the [qualifying] procedure certainly knows, and over time they get the idea that the federal meals is just for poor kids.”

Who eats free and reduced meals becomes increasingly obvious as competitive foods become more prevalent in schools. Competitive foods include vending machine and a la carte items schools sell independently of the subsidized food.

“Because schools can’t break even on the current charges for the full price or the combination of the reimbursed meals, they are selling food to kids in the a la carte program,” says Poppendieck. Although the nutritional value of government-regulated meals isn’t void of criticism, they are held to some sort of nutritional standard. A la carte items, on the other hand, are not. Kids with cash routinely choose these items (chips, cookies, nachos, pizza, soft pretzels with melted cheese, etc)—no big surprise there considering the food industry spends $10 to $12 billion a year on advertising “less healthy” foods to kids.

“In schools where other food is for sale, or where students are permitted to leave the campus for lunch, a situation develops where kids with money use these alternatives and the students participating in the federally subsidized meal program are overwhelmingly those who are eligible for free and reduced price meals,” Poppendieck says.

Pie in the Sky: Universal School Lunch

In “Free For All,” which took her six years to research and write, she advocates for what the title implies: free school meals for all children.  “Once we are offering the meals for free, most kids are going to eat them,” she says. “Most parents won’t give their kids money to buy elsewhere if a healthy, palatable meal is being served at school. We won’t have to meet kid’s preferences [with competitive foods], which are shaped so much by advertising.”

Poppendieck looks to Sweden as a shining example of universal free lunch, where students and teachers dine together, sharing healthy, free meals. Rather than creating stigmas and strata among children, she says, meals have the potential to bring them together.

“Think about meals at summer camp, when mealtimes were joyous, they were highpoints kids looked forward to, opportunities for building a sense of solidarity and spirit,” she says.

But how would it be funded? By us, the taxpayers. “We the collective payers would in fact be paying for meals for some students who can absolutely pay for their own,” Poppendieck explains.

The most popular proposal aimed at accomplishing this is a soda tax—a sin tax on sugar-sweetened beverages that would tack on an extra one cent per ounce. Proponents say the tax has the potential to change negative behavior (the average American drinks 50 gallons of soda and other sweetened beverages each year, according to the California Center for Public Health Advocacy) and raise revenue to fund better school food. According to Yale University’s Rudd Report, the proposed tax would raise $14.9 billion in the first year alone.

While Poppendieck supports taxing the consumption of sweetened beverages, she is uncomfortable with the use of such a tax to make all school meals free. Like other sales taxes, she says it would disproportionately affect people with lower incomes, and all for the sake of providing children—a portion of whom can afford to pay the full price—with free meals. “There are many ways we can fund this that would not fall most heavily on poor families, and I would urge that we use those,” she says.

It is unlikely that something as radical as universal free lunches will make it into this round of the CNA reauthorization. For now, supporters are pushing for more realistic elements of reform: a higher reimbursement rate to schools, limitations on competitive foods, higher nutritional standards, and more administrative efficiency.

Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA), who introduced Poppendieck at the Feb. 5 event, has taken a two-track stance on school food: first, he introduced the Children’s Fruit and Vegetable Act to congress in December, which would increase the amount of fruits and vegetables served in school breakfasts and lunches. He hopes for the bill to be included in the CNA’s reauthorization. Secondly, he is campaigning for efficiency. Over the years, the NSLP has expanded into six school feeding programs including School Breakfast, Special Milk, Seamless Summer, Fresh Fruits & Vegetables and After School Snacks, in addition to the original lunch program. U.S. schools spend $800 million per year administering these programs.

“The current system of six different programs means you have six different administrators, different accountants, different auditors, different guidelines, it means every family has to apply to every program, and that means that there is a large level of waste,” says Tom Mentzer, Farr’s spokesman. “By becoming more efficient in how we administer these programs we would make sure that more of the funds are going to the programs [themselves] rather than to administering them.”

Poppendieck believes that converging concerns over health and the environment met with “food consciousness being at an all-time high” makes this year’s reauthorization promising. “The time is now to take a whole new look at this,” she says. “I think we are likely to get substantial significant gains from this round.”

While We’re Waiting…

Never the type of town to wait for the rest of the country, Santa Cruz is full of efforts aimed at bettering school food.

Of all the schools Poppendieck learned of during her research, Pacific Elementary in Davenport proved to be one of her favorites when it came to school feeding programs. “In that school, the fifth graders prepare the school lunch,” she says. “They are divided up into teams, and each team plans and prepares a meal for a day of the week. It’s terrific: they learn abut nutrition [and] mathematics, they learn to cooperate, [and] they get to see the whole process from raw food to finished product.”

Santa Cruz City School District (SCCS) schools have been serving fresh, healthy meals courtesy of Revolution Foods, an Oakland-based catering company, since last fall. SCCS Trustee Cynthia Hawthorne says the meals have been a big success with the students so far. As planned, the district will be further transforming their already ahead-of-the-curve food system by transitioning to all on-site cooked meals—something very few schools offer anymore.

The UCSC Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS), Life Lab Science Program, the California Department of Education and two other resource center partners are spearheading an even wider endeavor. The coalition is training thousands of school food service directors and staff, educators and administrators on how to achieve what they have dubbed a “Healthy School Environment (HSE).”

“A HSE defined for our trainings brings together the classroom, cafeteria, and community and helps to show how connecting with farmers, taking a green approach to waste management, participating in garden-based learning, and offering nutrition education can help kids consume more fresh fruits and vegetables,” says John Fisher, assistant director of Life Lab.

The partners conducted 10 training HSE sessions across the California last fall, and have many more planned for spring and fall 2010. “In essence we are providing resources, inspiration and a venue for networking on Farm to School concepts to increase wellness in CA schools,” says Fisher. “Being able to partner with the CDE and carry out this message to thousands of schools is very powerful.” The next training will be in Salinas on March 8 and 9. Information about this event and more is available at healthyschoolenvironment.org.

Slow Food Santa Cruz, the local branch of Slow Food USA, has also jumped on board with the fight for school food reform. Last fall they hosted an eat-in as part of Slow Food’s Time For Lunch campaign, which advocated for a $1 raise in the reimbursement rate. (Congress currently spends $7 billion on school meals each year, according to Poppendieck, meaning that if Time For Lunch got its way, they would be spending $14 billion per year.) Last summer, Time For Lunch presented Washington D.C. with a petition of over 50,000 signatures in support of the statement: “We believe that federally funded nutrition programs should provide all children with the healthy food they deserve. This includes low fat and safe dairy, fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. Schools should be soda and junk-food-free zones and serve food that complements and furthers parents’ efforts to feed their children healthfully.”

While introducing Poppendieck at the recent event, Farr pointed out the Central Coast’s advantage in this situation. “The Central Coast is where fresh food begins,” he said.    
“There is a revolution going on from parents and school boards up,” he continued. “For years you, the parents, have been asking school boards ‘what are you teaching my children in the classroom?’ Now you’re also saying ‘what are you feeding them in the lunchroom?’ When the politics of school boards are as interested in the lunchroom as in the classroom, indeed the revolution will be on.”

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