By guest blogger Ed Bruske from The Slow Cook. Click here for A National Look at School Lunches, Part 1.
At the Berkeley central kitchen—a facility as big as a basketball court that makes meals for some 2,350 kids in the city’s 16 schools—I was handed an apron, a pair of Latex gloves, and a hair net, and put to work. I sorted chicken pieces for what I called the “epic,” eight-day chicken. I weighed cooked pasta to be trucked to outlying schools. I filled bins for those simple breakfasts, served in the classrooms. And every day at around 11:25, I got ready to serve lunch to hordes of middle-schoolers.
I quickly learned that Cooper, more than a “renegade,” is something of an outlaw genius when it comes to making the most out of a school meals budget. While most lunch ladies think in terms of two ounces of this vegetable, or three ounces of that grain, Cooper devised ways to count her salad bar as a vegetable and a grain and a protein. I have seen the eyes of other food service directors grow wide as saucers when Cooper explains how this is done, and how she will tell off state inspectors who might try to stop her. “I’ll believe it when my lawyer tells me it’s so,” is how she responds to government agents who try to cite rules to her.
But I also learned that while the food in Berkeley is cooked fresh, it still looks very much like kid’s food. The Berkeley system still depends on those federal government subsidies, which are only forthcoming if the kids actually take the meals. Hence, you see pizza twice a week on the Berkeley menu, lots of pasta and chicken. Cooper tried to get rid of nachos and the students went on strike. The best she could do was redesign the nachos, without all the goopy, Day-Glo cheese.
One industry insider who’s been following my reports complained that what I had done so far was describe two polar-opposite systems, two “extremes” of the nation’s school lunch program. So my reporting is still a work in progress. I plan to visit other school districts to get a more complete sense of where we are in our efforts to feed some 31 million schoolchildren every day.
What have I learned so far? First, we don’t have to wait for more standards or more federal money to make school meals healthier. All we have to do is eliminate much of the sugar—what some call the “stealth” ingredient—from school meals. Candied cereals, Pop-Tarts, Goldfish Grahams, strawberry milk, fruit juices, syrupy canned fruit: These might make great business for food manufacturers, but they just fill kids with empty calories. Yet, I was surprised to learn that in all the hundreds of pages of rules governing the federal school meals program, there is no standard for how much sugar can be served. And you thought we just needed to worry about sodas in vending machines?
Second, there’s entirely too much attention focused on writing more standards in Washington. Schools have already proved that you can have books filled with standards, and they can just as easily translate those into lousy food. No, what really matters is the food kids see on their plates. Is it palatable? Is it fresh? Is it healthy? Does it teach kids lessons about food that you want them to absorb and carry with them into adulthood?
Finally, even the best-intentioned school food-service personnel do not have a magic wand they can wave to turn the industrially processed convenience foods they are serving into food cooked from scratch with fresh ingredients. It has taken decades for schools to sink to the sorry state they are in now, where each, on average, loses 35 cents on every meal they serve.
We now see a kind of circular firing squad around the school food issue, where everyone on the local level blames everyone else for how bad the food is, yet we aren’t supposed to complain because everyone is trying as hard as they can to make it better. Meanwhile, those most responsible—your elected representatives in Congress and in state capitals around the country—look blithely on, occasionally tossing pennies at the problem. In fact, the only people who seem to make out in this situation are food manufacturers, who are getting rich selling frozen pizzas and chicken nuggets, and giant food-service providers like Chartwells, Aramark and Sodexo, who work hand-in-hand with their corporate brethren on the manufacturing side.
Yes, folks, it will take money to turn this around—much more money than is currently being proposed. And it will take millions of parents who care. That’s why I urge you not to delay: Make a point to visit your local school. Sit in on lunch and see what kids are actually eating. It might just convince you that school food is not a joke anymore. It has real consequences. You might just be moved to get involved yourself.