Thursday, October 20, 2011

Minding my Peas and Q's

When I was in elementary school I begged my mother to take me off the school lunch program and pack my lunch at home. It was partly because I disliked school lunch, partly because I hated waiting in line but mostly because all of my friends brought lunch from home and I wanted to sit near them. I remember the feeling of relief when she finally sent me with a bagged lunch. I didn't care what it was and I don't know if I ever really ate it. So is eating school lunch as bad as I remembered?

Earlier this month I read about the release of Fed Up With Lunch, the expose written by a school teacher working in a Chicago public school who anonymously blogged about (and photographed) school lunch over the course of the school year under the pseudonym Mrs. Q.  I wondered how representative her experience was eating school lunch. But I didn't really have to wonder for very long. When I started this rotation is school food service my preceptor told me we would be eating lunch at the schools. As an insider on both ends of the lunch line I can now say this about school lunch: it's complicated! Oh, I've said that before? Well if I didn't convince you before, maybe I will now.

To start with I am certainly not the target demographic of the school lunch program. I don't eat meat, only eat kosher poultry and I avoid gluten and dairy among other things. Dairy is big in schools. HUGE. 'Got milk?' posters are ubiquitous and students are offered "white" milk and chocolate milk at all meals. So I was nervous about relying on school lunch given these restrictions so I packed myself a few snacks and figured my day is over at 3pm so worst case scenario I pick up some lunch on my way home. I was pleasantly surprised on the first day when I found Spanish (brown) rice, vegetarian beans, and a salad bar. Not the type of elaborate seasonal salad bar I'm used to - it included shredded (iceberg) lettuce, sliced tomatoes, pickled peppers, onions and cheese - but vegetables nonetheless. I ignored the sour cream, took some guacamole (which I later learned had yogurt in it to keep costs down and to add some nutritional value) and considered my lunch fairly healthy and satisfying.

Some days were better than others. One day the only remotely suitable options were brown rice, applesauce and lettuce. Yesterday I ate a baked potato, a bowl of mushy dark colored reduced-sodium peas, package of carrots and sunbutter. On those days I go home and eat leftovers as fast as I can. But other days I've been pleased to find treasures like quinoa, roasted vegetables and stuffed acorn squash. With Try-it Tuesdays and Why Not Wednesdays introducing new foods to the lunch line there more whole grains, vegetarian and vegan options available. Despite these healthy options I don't want to make this sound like some Midwestern miracle because here's the catch: most students don't choose these foods. They opt for the hot dogs, the burgers, the pizza, the french fries, the chicken nuggets and anything with cheese. Not all students, but most. And why are these foods sold in school cafeterias? Let's just say it has to do with dollars and cents.

Here's the breakdown from a typical school: Students pay $2.25 for a full-priced lunch. The government will reimburse $0.27 with an additional $0.26 in commodity values for total revenue of $2.73 per meal.

Now let's look at the costs:
    1. Milk - $0.22
    2. Fruit - $0.25
    3. Grain - $0.30
    4. Protein - $0.65
    5. Vegetable - $0.25
    6. Labor - $1.04
    7. Indirect - $0.27
So while $2.73 is generated in revenue, the total cost for a lunch meal is $2.98. I'm no economist but I know that when costs exceed revenue you end up in the red. And that's what happens when the only food offered is the reimbursable meal, one which meets the USDA guidelines and offers at five food groups of which students must take at least three. Some cost can be saved if students choose less than the five items to which they are entitled, but that doesn't quite fix the hole. Interestingly, while the same imbalance exists in breakfast programs, many states reimburse the difference. So why not raise the price of lunch? Because when schools raise the price even 25 cents, students tend to opt out, parents send lunch from home and the only kids buying school lunch are those at free and reduced price. Instead, most school food service programs rely on other revenue generating means such as a la carte sale of chips and cookies and "healthier" snacks, vending machines, catering school events and providing box lunches for sports teams.

More and more schools have fruit and vegetables on the menu. Many schools are sourcing locally when possible. School food service and nutrition staff care about nutrition but they also care about feeding kids meals they will eat that will also qualify for reimbursement. They are forced to balance very tight budgets and provide items that meet the outdated government standards. They care about school lunch and they eat school lunch and they get very defensive when criticized for the role of school lunch in childhood obesity, citing shorter lunch periods and decreased activity as far worse offenders. They now find themselves at the center of a heated national debate. "They" are represented by giant organizations like the School Nutrition Association and the National Food Service Management Institute but they are individuals serving different communities and some have more leeway than others when making changes.

All of this might sound very discouraging. And there is definitely a lot of work to be done to change the current system. But the other day I went to a meeting with other school food service directors that was hosted by Gordon Food Service, a giant food distributor that many of the schools use. I asked those sitting around me if the field has changed since they started working in schools ten or twenty years ago. "Oh yes," they told me. "It has changed dramatically over the years. There was a time when we were behind the times by 10-15 years. Now with all the spotlight on school lunch we've had to catch up very quickly."  So while it's important to remember that the healthy school lunch pioneers (like Ann Cooper) have been at it for years, many of us have neglected to consider the state of school lunch until Jamie Oliver brought it to prime time and people like Mrs. Q started to blog about it. And with the spotlight on school gardens and cooking and celebrity chefs in the cafeteria and whole grains and physical activity, good things are happening.

Beyond the kitchen and lunch line, I can't say that I understand the social dynamics of the modern school cafeteria. Today I watched a girl from the lunch line as a girl sat alone at the end of her class's table in an area reserved as peanut-free and wondered how she felt. Do you think kids still judge the lunches their friends eat? I'm sure they do. As for me, I've had my fill of school lunch for a while. And I can't wait to bring my own lunch from home again.

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