Can Your School Afford Healthier Cafeteria Food?


What parent could disagree with new federal mandates requiring that school food be healthier?

Up until recently, most of them were crying that the new USDA guidelines, proposed in January, weren't strict enough, allowing "flavored" milk (read: sweetened) as long as it's non-fat or low-fat so schools could "limit saturated fat in the school meals while maintaining key nutrients for growth and development found in fluid milk."

Nutritionist Marion Nestle came as close as one can to rolling her eyes in print, when she wrote, "Milk, as I keep saying, is not an essential nutrient. Chocolate or strawberry milk is a dessert. Chalk this one up to dairy lobbying."

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There's also hue and cry over the requirements that highly processed faux foods -- Nestle calls them "strangely tasting miracles of food technology" -- like reduced-fat mayonnaise and margarine be included alongside real, non-processed foods like whole fruits and vegetables.

The biggest change in the new guidelines is that the school requirements are now "food based" rather than "nutrient based" (although the limits on saturated fat and salt are due to inclusion of low-fat salad dressings and butter substitutes), so that districts won't be, as Bettina Elias Siegel pointed out, be serving vitamin-fortified, high-sugar graham crackers to meet an iron requirement.

"The proposed meal pattern for breakfast would offer fruits, grains, meats/meat alternatives and milk, while lunch would include fruits, vegetables, grains, meats/meat alternatives and milk," Siegel wrote. New requirements also include caloric maximums to address obesity concerns in addition to calorie minimums, set early last century when malnutrition was more of a concern than obesity.

All in all, a net positive for kids. Right?

Ummm. Not if it has to cost more, says the G.O.P. The new meals will cost an additional 14 cents each -- far less than pundits have estimated a truly whole-food-based overhaul of school menus would cost. But this is too much, say some congressional conservatives. Asking that kids eat more real food items, less processed food and less sugar thanks to caloric limits? These are "unrealistic demands," say the sponsors of a spending bill directing the USDA to rewrite the rules so they wouldn't force schools to spend additional money.

Thank the heavens, someone is thinking about the kids, right? And all those unrealistic dimes and pennies we want schools to spend on them each day? Since the 1970s, American school cafeterias have been doing just that -- focusing on the nickels, dimes and half-pennies going into their kids' stomachs, cutting costs by switching from the scratch cooking of the 1940s, 50s and 60s to the wholesale reliance on processed, prepared, packaged and largely nutritionally bereft food that required less labor (heating, not chopping; handing over plastic packages, not slopping) and are reliant on cheaper ingredients subsidized by the USDA in other ways (wheat, corn and what has come to be known as "cheap meat" -- cows and pigs raised in close conditions and eating corn, soy and the leftovers from the processed food industry).

As my husband would say sarcastically, "How's that working out for you?"

I'll be specific. There has been a rise in obesity and a raft of scientific studies demonstrating the link between sugary, highly processed carbohydrates and poor attention, sleepiness and behavior disorders in school kids. But schools say, "New rules issued by the Agriculture Department in January will require [us] to buy pricier foods and more equipment at a time when federal and state budgets are tight and food costs are rising."

I'm one who believes our kids are worth it. Add to the list all of the chefs in the White House kitchen, who along with First Lady Michelle Obama are involved in a major push to get chefs and food activists to help out in their local school cafeterias.

That help involves coming up with creative solutions and getting good food connected to the cafeteria supply chain. White House pastry chef Bill Yosses, for instance, spent most of the first week of June in Austin, Texas, affirming the administration's belief in keeping kids close to real food, celebrating a program of an international chefs' and food writers' association that connects culinary professionals to schools with gardening and cooking curriculum.

Jan Poppendieck, author of a book about school food, says in interviews that investing in kids is important, but that doesn't necessarily have to mean spending additional cash. It can also mean simple, direct involvement by local parents, restaurants, farmers and chefs.

"All kinds of nifty experiments are going on around the country," said Poppendieck. "People were able to serve better meals by making changes in menu planning, the management of the program, the amount of waste in the program -- in some cases even by getting rid of the a la carte."

Potato and pizza manufacturers complain that the new rules will decrease the amount of french fries and pizzas served in school cafeterias -- and this is bad, they say, because kids will eat those things. But "will" and "should" are two different things. Every cafeteria administration that has made a wholehearted push to teach kids about good food -- and serve it in creative ways -- has discovered amazing things, like that kids will eat kale.

At that culinary professionals conference in Austin last week, I witnessed four, separate, typical American children state unequivocally that they loved brussels sprouts. And later, I watched them eat potatoes that they had grown themselves, baked with carrots and still in their skins.

The reluctance of lawmakers and school districts to invest, even a few cents per meal, in the health of our children is and should be pass�. We have seen evidence about how better meals pays off in gains in attention, health and learning ability and reduced health care costs. The choices made in the 60s, 70s and 80s to improve efficiency only did so at great cost to the present state of our nation's waistline and intellectual capacity. Let us not let the taste for cheap sugary calories that we developed as grade schoolers prevent us from making the right choice for our own kids today.

If your school can't afford healthier food, the system needs to be changed; in the meantime, you can encourage your congressperson not to support limits to the new nutritional standards, and you can embrace the brown bag, while your school will still let you.

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