A record number of students are qualifying for the federal free lunch program; but what are we feeding them?
With the country abuzz over health care reform—decrying supposed death panels or outraged over soaring insurance premiums—it seems the health care fervor has forgotten something pretty important: health. Not sickness, not insurance, but health. Wellness. It’s something that is quickly slipping from our grasp as a society, and yet the debate rages on about what drugs and surgeries to use and how to pay for them, instead of how to stay healthy in the first place.
“Health care reform is not just about business and economics, it’s about making healthy communities. Nutrition is a critical part of that, and nutrition should start early on …” – Assemblymember Bill Monning
The roots of good health begin where everything else does: in childhood. With the country’s childhood obesity rates at an all-time high (the Institute of Medicine predicts that one in five children will be obese by 2010), what we feed our children is proving more important than ever—research has shown that a child fed primarily on junk food will not only have greater risks of chronic illness, but will also perform worse in school.
Congressman Sam Farr (D-Calif.) addressed the issue in a speech at a Labor Day event in Santa Cruz, reporting that 250 to 300 people in the 17th Congressional District will die from diabetes next year. “How many of those could’ve been prevented?” he asked the crowd. “If we knew we were going to lose 300 people in automobile accidents next year, we would have a war against that cause of death.”
Santa Cruz’s state representative, Assemblymember Bill Monning, was also present at the event, a National Day of Action “Eat-In” hosted by Slow Food Santa Cruz, a branch of a global educational nonprofit that promotes “good, clean and fair” foods. The gathering was one of more than 300 simultaneous Eat-Ins organized by Slow Food USA as part of its Time For Lunch campaign to get “real food in schools.” Speaking with Good Times, Monning agrees with Farr that the nation’s health epidemics should be addressed at the roots.
“We shouldn’t be treating people with diabetes at age 30, we should be educating them when they’re 3 and avoid having them claim health care for diabetes later on,” he says, adding that getting to kids early on is the crux of sparking true change in health care.
“Health care reform is not just about business and economics, it’s about making healthy communities,” says Monning. “Nutrition is a critical part of that, and nutrition should start early on. It’s about developing knowledge, good eating habits, and availability of nutritious food in school-aged children.”
According to the California Perspective Executive Summary … 28 million more meals were served in the 2007-2008 school year than the year before.
According to Farr, it wasn’t until recent years that parents have begun to “make a stink” about what their kids are eating at school—a movement that he says can be credited to progressive places like Santa Cruz. “Just recently in the last decade [has the] concern shifted from the classroom to the lunchroom,” he says. “This is a whole new revolution of people who are saying, ‘Is that what you are serving? Why are you serving them that?’”
Of course, school lunches may not have been as worrisome until recent years—previously lunch staff actually cooked them, for a start. Cynthia Hawthorne, board member of Santa Cruz City Schools (SCCS), says that there has been a steep and detrimental decline in the quality of school food in the past 10 years.
“As public education has been de-funded over the years, school kitchens have been absolutely degraded,” says Hawthorne. “We’ve been having the classroom and the kitchen competing for dollars, and the classroom wins, of course. In the meantime, there was a switch from serving food to serving food product.”
As the early rumbles of great and meaningful change begin to shake the foundation of the American lifestyle—the convergence of health and food consciousness, and the organic and local movements, for example—more parents and educators are fighting for school food reform. And although the looming health care bill is primarily concerned with health insurance, its timing has spurred these rumbles over child nutrition into a tangible national movement. From local efforts in Santa Cruz to upcoming federal legislation, the fight for real food in schools is in full swing.
Crusading for Federal-Level Change
The federal government became involved in school lunches in 1946 when President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act into effect, thereby providing free and reduced lunches to low-income students at qualified schools. About 7.1 million children participated in the program during its first year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture; today, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) serves more than 30 million meals per day. The government reimburses schools at a staggered rate for the sale of free, reduced and full-price meals.
Twenty years after the NSLP’s inception, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Child Nutrition Act into law, regulating the program’s nutritional standards. The Act is due for reauthorization later this year, and judging by the growing cries to completely rewrite it, the nutritional standards it mandates just aren’t cutting it any more.
“We’ve been having the classroom and the kitchen competing for dollars, and the classroom wins, of course. In the meantime, there was a switch from serving food to serving food product.”– Cynthia Hawthorne, SCCS board member
Slow Food USA is spearheading the effort with the Time for Lunch campaign. Among its demands, the campaign asks for the reauthorization to include a $1 raise per day, per student in federal reimbursement of school meals. The current reimbursement rate is $2.57 for a free lunch, $2.17 for a reduced-cost lunch, and $.24 for a paid lunch. According to Slow Food, the costs of administration and labor leaves schools with $1 or less per student meal, which they say is an insufficient amount to provide a properly nutritious meal.
Cliff Warren, head of Slow Food Santa Cruz, says that not only would the $1 provide tastier, healthier meals, but it would also prove a worthwhile investment. “It would cost about $5 billion to increase the reimbursement for school lunches by $1,” he explains via e-mail. “According to a speech made by Michelle Obama, obesity in America costs $120 billion. So, even if a small part of the obesity problem is reduced, the payoff would be a good investment.”
The poor nutritional value of school meals has gained increased attention as a result of the economy’s recent tumble, as more families have switched from brown-bagged meals from home to free or reduced options at school. According to the California Perspective Executive Summary, “school meal program participation increased dramatically in 2007-2008 … clearly stemmed from the downward turn in the economy and increased food and energy costs.” The summary reports that 28 million more meals were served in the 2007-2008 school year than the year before, and that the number has gone up at least another 10 percent since. In reaction to these figures, proponents of reforming school food, including California’s Food and Agriculture, Education, and Health departments (all co-authors of the summary), are wondering why the nation’s most underprivileged children are being fed its worst food.
“There is a huge disconnect with kids about where food comes from. You’ll ask them, and they say it comes from the grocery store.”
– Nicole Meschi, PVUSD director of Food and Nutrition Services
The socio-economic problems with the school lunch system are another focus of the Time for Lunch campaign. “There are four choices in a school for lunch: bring your own, buy at full price, pay a subsidized amount, or pay nothing,” says Warren. “Unfortunately those are four different lines the kids stand in at school. It creates social strata for kids, already, in elementary school.”
Rep. Farr also feels that, in some ways, school meal programs make things worse for the people they are trying to help. For example, the government has expanded its school food aid over the years, now offering six federally sponsored school meal programs in addition to lunch. These include Afterschool Snacks, Fresh Fruit & Vegetables, Seamless Summer, School Breakfast and Special Milk. Despite good intentions, Farr says the programs’ separate bureaucracies make it too complicated for recipients.
“We have six different feeding programs—each one is a different law, different management, different payment schedules, different accountability,” he says. “The same kid can qualify to eat six times a day, but has to qualify each time separately. It’s just a nightmare.” He plans to propose that the government streamline these programs when the Child Nutrition Act comes up for reauthorization.
In the meantime, he has drafted a separate bill, The Children’s Fruit and Vegetable Act, which he will introduce to Congress later this month. According to Farr, the government spent $79 million on mozzarella cheese and $6 million on lettuce and tomatoes for schools last year. The bill would rearrange federal spending on school food, shifting the focus to fresh fruits and vegetables. “If you’re really going to get into healthy diets, you’re going to have to change the way the government buys food, distributes food and rewards people for eating them,” he says. His bill will also promote putting a salad bar in every school and purchasing local produce.
Sixty-seven percent of PVUSD students qualified for free or reduced-price school meals last year. That amount is higher than 80 percent at 17 of the district’s schools.
Santa Cruz Takes Initiative
More than 20,000 people gathered at the Labor Day Eat-In locations nationwide to demand that the government start mandating better food in schools. The turnout at Santa Cruz’s San Lorenzo Park affair was modest but cheerful. Families sprawled across the lawn with picnic blankets and packed lunches, having been encouraged to pack the type of lunch they’d like their children to eat at school. The peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apples, string cheese and crackers that abounded were a stark contrast to the pre-made, re-heated corn dogs, pizza and cheeseburgers found in many school cafeterias. But, unlike the parents at most of the gatherings taking place simultaneously, those in attendance at the local Eat-In were not protesting these typical, over-greased cafeteria foods. They were celebrating Santa Cruz City School district’s lack of them.
“The last 10 days [since school began], the students have all had a healthy, wholesome meal,” said SCCS board member Hawthorne with a boastful smile. Earlier this summer, the district hired Oakland-based Revolution Foods to supply nutritious and sustainable home-cooked meals to its students. They plan to eventually transition into having school meals cooked on site by school staff (“Remember when lunch ladies used to actually cook the food? We’re going back in time,” jokes Hawthorne). In the meantime, Revolution Foods has allowed the schools to offer foods like honey-glazed chicken, diesel turkey, organic milk and local fruit and produce—creating a menu more akin to a pricey local eatery than a subsidized school lunch program.
According to Hawthorne, the motivation for this change began because educators were noticing a growing gap between what was being taught about food and nutrition in the classrooms and what was being served in the lunchroom. It also appeared that more students were coming to school hungry.
“We know that state-wide, the numbers [of students who qualify for free lunch] are growing by 15 to 30 percent because of the economy,” she says. “What we’re doing is trying to serve the children from the working poor, who are probably getting about 40 percent of their calories every day from food at school.”
As a result, the price of a school lunch has gone from $2.50 to $3.25 in elementary schools and $3 to $3.50 in middle schools. The success of the program relies on an increase in the amount of children who buy meals at full price, like Deb Tracy-Proulx’s two sons. Both boys are students at Gault Elementary, where 73 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, the highest of any school in the district. Tracy-Proulx, sporting an “I Love Gault Elementary” T-shirt for the picnic, has packed their lunches ever since her oldest was in kindergarten. She remembers taking a peek in the school kitchen, seeing what was being served, and saying, “Oh my God, you can’t eat that.”
“It’s really hard because they have friends whose families have no choice, they eat school lunch out of financial necessity or because their parents are busy with work,” she says. “It’s hard for me to say, ‘That food is not good enough for you, but it is good enough for your friend.’” Fed up with the disparity, Tracy-Proulx became one of the frontrunners of the revision of SCCS’ food services.
Her son Oscar, now in third grade, is pleased with the food at school. He says the cheeseburgers are “more flavourful, less dry-ish’” and that now kids are eating most of their meals. “I love it, most kids do,” he says.
Although the meals are now more expensive, Tracy-Proulx says she is more than happy to pay the $3.25 price—an affordable amount for her family—if it means allowing the school’s low-income students to continue receiving nutritious, free or reduced-price meals. Gesturing to the gathering of picnickers around her, she says that it is imperative for this federal legislation to pass so that other districts can follow their lead.
SCCS’ neighboring Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD) may be close in proximity (and even closer to the agricultural heart of the county), but it is leagues away in terms of healthy school food. The September 2009 school lunch menu, available on PVUSD’s website, lists mini corn dogs, nachos, pizza, popcorn chicken, and cheese-stuffed breadsticks amongst its entrees, with the option of choosing healthier snacks like yogurt, string cheese and trail mix instead. Nicole Meschi, PVUSD director of food and nutrition services, says the district does the best it can, but that they lack the funding to provide as nutritious of foods as SCCS. “It’s great to say you serve all organic fruits and vegetables, but it’s not reasonable for us to say that right now because of the costs,” she says. “That is really what it comes down to: we look for the best product at the most reasonable price.”
According to Meschi, 67 percent of PVUSD students qualified for free or reduced price school meals last year. At 17 of the district’s schools, that amount is higher than 80 percent. Knowing that many of these students receive the bulk of their daily calories at school, Meschi has tried to assemble the most nutritious meals possible with limited resources—a task she finds particularly difficult without an educational effort to accompany it.
“We can put it out, it doesn’t mean they are going to eat it,” she says. “Us educating them on it and making it available for them is what is really needed to be successful. There is a huge disconnect with kids about where food comes from. You’ll ask them, and they say it comes from the grocery store. We are in such a great area to make that connection with kids, especially because a lot of [their] parents [work] in that industry.”
Although she says PVUSD lacks the funding to implement an education component in all schools, three schools were fortunate enough to be awarded a $74,460 Fresh Fruit and Vegetable pilot grant to provide fresh produce and nutrition education. Cesar Chavez Middle School, one recipient of the grant, put the money toward a lunchtime Farmers’ Market where students learn how to prepare potentially “intimidating” vegetables. “Kids were cooking kale by the end of the year,” says Meschi.
These grants are one way PVUSD is inching toward school food reform. “We are moving in that direction, but without the money from the government we can’t leap to it like some other places can,” says Meschi.
Minutes before speaking at the Labor Day Eat-In, Assemblymember Monning expressed hope that the momentum behind the movement—from Slow Food’s campaign to Farr’s upcoming bill—would result in federal change that would allow nutrition improvements in all schools.
According to Congressman Sam Farr, the government spent $79 million on mozzarella cheese and $6 million on lettuce and tomatoes for schools last year.
“Santa Cruz is positioning itself even before the federal legislation,” he says. “They aren’t waiting. What they are doing is the model that needs to be replicated throughout the country. For a school district like Pajaro, however, that’s where the federal legislation is so critical, because the money, unfortunately, isn’t all there.”
SCCS’ partnership with Revolution Foods isn’t the first instance of the city acting as a school health pioneer. In 1978, Green Acres Elementary School in Santa Cruz began a “living laboratory” school garden. The idea spurred so much attention that a local nonprofit, Life Lab, was formed one year later to extend the program to other schools. Thirty years later, the organization operates out of UC Santa Cruz and oversees more than 1,000 gardens nationwide.
Looking out over the assembly of picnicking families, Farr congratulated Santa Cruz on leading the way for another school health front, saying, “As with all revolutions in this country, it will start in Santa Cruz.”