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National School Lunch Program


jagdillard
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I am finishing up a longer piece on this topic and would love some thoughts.

jagd

RETHINKING AGRICULTURAL COMMODITIES

SF Chronicle, 10 May 2007

Just as the scales beneath the feet of our nation’s children are reaching a tipping point, so too is the social movement of providing local, organic foods for America’s schoolchildren. This is welcome news to Alice Waters and others who have long-promoted the health and lifestyle benefits of consuming whole, organic, locally grown and produced foods. Change is underway in many districts around the country; one of the most promising is the Berkeley Unified School District, which has undergone a complete overhaul of its school lunch program under the leadership of the “Renegade Lunch Lady,” Chef Ann Cooper. With much-needed supplemental funding from Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation, Cooper has set herself to the task of providing healthy, delicious food to 9000 schoolchildren every day. Her work isn’t easy. And sadly, Cooper has to fight the federal government every day to achieve her goal.

Cooper knows that under her tutelage kids will quickly clamor for freshly roasted red potatoes over high fat, processed tater tots, but first she has to get them on their plates. Before she can do that she has to purchase fresh red potatoes. But she has neither the funds nor the permission to place an order at the local farmer’s market. Currently, the nation’s schoolchildren are fed, in large part, by the over-produced agricultural commodities that are promised a market by the Farm Bill. The Department of Agriculture’s commodities policy, which will be revisited by Congress this year when it passes the new Farm Bill, puts the USDA in a conflict of interest between agribusiness and promoting the good health of U.S. schoolchildren.

The USDA supports food industries that produce foods contributing to obesity, heart disease, and cancer. Worse yet, the USDA buys hundreds of millions of pounds of excess beef, pork, milk, and other high-fat meat and dairy products to bolster or normalize dropping prices. It then turns around and dumps those commodities into the National School Lunch Program. Although medical journals are full of evidence of the health benefits of near-vegetarian meals, the vast majority of schools offer meals based on meat and dairy products. Newer studies show a link between lactose-intolerant children, particularly those of African-American descent, and the onset of asthma and hyperactivity disorders, yet most schools don’t offer an alternative, like soy milk, on their menus. The dairy lobby seems to be winning the heart of the USDA over the community of lactose-intolerant children. So long as the USDA has oversight of the National School Lunch Program and continues to carry this conflict of interest, powerful agricultural lobbies will always win.

The National School Lunch Program was enacted by Congress in 1946, with an explicitly stated, dual policy: “to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s school children” and “encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other foods.” Today the USDA acts as a broker between farmers and school kitchens. As agribusiness and mega-farms have increasingly taken over a larger share of the agricultural market, the beneficiaries of commodities subsidies are not the family farmers that the Farm Bill originally intended. Instead, big business, with its powerful pocketbook, has bought the USDA, to the detriment of the nation’s schoolchildren.

Processing commodities intensifies the conflicts of interest within the USDA. Through the National Processing Agreement, designed to reduce paperwork and costs, the USDA holds agreements with agribusiness to turn commodities into processed foods that can be easily heated in school kitchens, because most lack stoves for actual cooking. A full two-thirds of the listed commodities being processed are meat and dairy. The remaining third covers everything from oil and fruit (in the same proportion) and flour and vegetables. The only vegetable listed with any specificity is the potato, and the few fruits on the list are being processed with flour and shortening to become high fat muffins and fruit pastries. Of course the most popular processed food on school lunch menus is high fat pizza. While the approved processors vary in size and capital, it will surprise no one to learn that ConAgra, one of the largest food processing companies in North America, is on the list, profiting from turning cheap government-subsidized commodities into foods that are making schoolchildren obese.

The National School Lunch Program should be treated like a healthy part of our overall educational system, and to that end, Congress should give children an independent broker that runs no risk of bowing to the powerful agribusiness lobby. Chefs like Ann Cooper need a voice within an appropriate agency, such as Health and Human Services or Education, which puts the health and well being of children first. Recognizing in the pending Farm Bill that the National School Lunch Program is not an agricultural program, nor an appropriate dumping ground for a glut of unhealthy commodities, would be a decent first step.

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Congress should give children an independent broker that runs no risk of bowing to the powerful agribusiness lobby.

The idea of an independent broker in Washington is akin to believing in the tooth fairy, no matter what party is in power whoever is nominated will come in with an agenda that I doubt will actually be about getting little Jane to eat more spinach. Also if they are under HHS of Ed, they will not be independent but will report to the Secretary of that agency.

You identified the problem and how one community circumvented the federal government to find a solution, but then expect that the originator of the problem has the ability to solve it. Why not push for less control from Washington and have them treat the school lunch program as they treat text books? Have the government set minimum standards for school districts to follow in return for funding and then local school boards would determine how to meet those standards. It will bring the solution closer to the people who are most effected by the issue, and could possibly diminish the power of Washington based lobbyists.

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One of the first things that springs to mind is that the school lunch program is one of the largest "welfare" programs in the country, stopping many children from starving. I don't remember the statistics about what percentage of students are on the program. But since it is one of the biggest, it is one of the most costly. So the question is whether the healthier foods can be purchased at similar prices. What may sound like a few cents on a smaller scale must be magnified significantly across the country. The government is also short-sighted looking to the short-term effects - hunger reduction at a lower price, as opposed to the long-term effects of having to shoulder health care costs for sick adults, which in the end could be far more costly. Arguably it could lower costs for consumers overall, as this would reduce some unnecessary farm subsidies.

Like the article says, the Berkeley overhaul was due to the tons of funding that came from Alice Waters Foundation. Also on the East Coast we don't have the advantages of a long growing season, availability and quality. Much harder to enact the way that they can on the West Coast.

I agree that things need to change, these are just the feasibility questions that come to my mind.

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Is this an op-ed piece? Or news feature?

Random, albeit not fully-developed, thoughts:

How does the issue of agricultural commodities impact food security, an issue that's gaining attention?

It's a given that the current food crisis will make obesity, heart disease and diabetes even more rampant. How do those numbers compare to, say, 10 years ago? Or, previous incarnations of the Food Bill?

What changes, if any, can be made to benefits to offset the consumption of cheap, processed foods? For example, have food stamp benefits kept up with inflation?

Again, with the economy: how many children are participating in school lunch programs? Will those numbers change with a failing economy? Will this justify an artificial increase in the need for agricultural subsidies?

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I spoke to George Schenk of American Flatbread yesterday, and it sounds like this is a topic he cares strongly about as well. They're looking to start offering AF's pizza in schools around Burlington, VT, and it makes sense to me: if you start getting kids eating quality, healthy food at an early age, they'll become accustomed to it. As they grow older, they'll start demanding it in high school, then in college, and then will seek it out as adults. I think starting kids early on proper food can really turn our country's health and palate around!

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I spoke to George Schenk of American Flatbread yesterday, and it sounds like this is a topic he cares strongly about as well. They're looking to start offering AF's pizza in schools around Burlington, VT, and it makes sense to me: if you start getting kids eating quality, healthy food at an early age, they'll become accustomed to it. As they grow older, they'll start demanding it in high school, then in college, and then will seek it out as adults. I think starting kids early on proper food can really turn our country's health and palate around!
1)Pizza, even organic pizza, ain't exactly the most healthful food.

2)I have no good reason to question their motives, but as a deeply skeptical person let me re-write a couple of your sentences "if you start getting kids eating Product X at an early age, they'll become accustomed to Product X. As they grow older, they'll start demanding Product X in high school, then in college, and then will seek Product X out as adults." TANSTAAFL

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1)Pizza, even organic pizza, ain't exactly the most healthful food.

2)I have no good reason to question their motives, but as a deeply skeptical person let me re-write a couple of your sentences "if you start getting kids eating Product X at an early age, they'll become accustomed to Product X. As they grow older, they'll start demanding Product X in high school, then in college, and then will seek Product X out as adults." TANSTAAFL

Organic, locally grown pizza made from wholesome farm quality ingredients is far better than the pizza most school cafeterias dole out - and students will be far more likely to make that replacement in their diets than they would if the current pizzas were replaced with tofu and soy paste.
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I am finishing up a longer piece on this topic and would love some thoughts.

jagd

RETHINKING AGRICULTURAL COMMODITIES

SF Chronicle, 10 May 2007

Would you be able to supply the link to the article you cite? I tried unsuccessfully to retrieve it from the archive of the San Francisco Chronicle, assuming the RAC phrase is its title. Thanks.
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Organic, locally grown pizza made from wholesome farm quality ingredients is far better than the pizza most school cafeterias dole out - and students will be far more likely to make that replacement in their diets than they would if the current pizzas were replaced with tofu and soy paste.
But will they be able to afford it? I pass up American Flatbread pizzas because I am not about to pay $11 for a frozen product. Far better to teach kids about nutrition and how to cook for themselves.
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I have seen a couple of attempts at programs such as Alice Walter's start but barely get their feet off the ground. In order succeed a program needs a) at least one very dedicated person who is getting paid to start and then run the program b ) enough money to fund the program a few years (grant money for one year is a start but not enough) and c) buy in from the adults in the school (not just the administration).

I got to experience trying to find a school lunch provider for a school that I used to work at and you cannot imagine how difficult it is. There are regulations for everything, especially if you are receiving money from a free or subsidized government lunch program. It was a complete nightmare.

All that being said, in my years of teaching I proved time and again that if you introduce a classroom full of kids to good, fresh fruit and other "different" foods there are always at least a few who will ask for more. If only it wasn't so expensive to do so.

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Would you be able to supply the link to the article you cite? I tried unsuccessfully to retrieve it from the archive of the San Francisco Chronicle, assuming the RAC phrase is its title. Thanks.
The SFC archives have it under a different headline: Rethinking school lunch. Perhaps the title of the follow-up article is:
RETHINKING AGRICULTURAL COMMODITIES
The authors have a specific perspective, but it doesn't read like an OpEd piece - more like something inside WaPo's Outlook section. No disrespect to WaPo, but they'd actually run it inside the food section because the piece includes a recipe. One author's bio includes a website link to healthy lunch recipes.
Amy Dillard is an assistant professor of law at the University of Baltimore at work on an article about USDA commodities dumping. Lisa Holmes is co-author with Chef Ann Cooper of "Lunch Lessons" (Collins, 2006), a recent winner of an ICPA Cookbook Award. For more recipes, go to: www.lunchlessons.org/html_v2/recipes.html

This article appeared on page B - 7 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Is the OP one of these authors?
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But will they be able to afford it? I pass up American Flatbread pizzas because I am not about to pay $11 for a frozen product. Far better to teach kids about nutrition and how to cook for themselves.
It would definitely have to be heavily subsidized by American Flatbread. Even if you allow that their main motive is to be a good corporate citizen, a business still has to be a business and you can't overlook the marketing exposure that this would give. I'd say the same thing if Wolfgang Puck started giving his pizzas to schools gratis.
I have seen a couple of attempts at programs such as Alice Walter's start but barely get their feet off the ground. In order succeed a program needs a) at least one very dedicated person who is getting paid to start and then run the program b ) enough money to fund the program a few years (grant money for one year is a start but not enough) and c) buy in from the adults in the school (not just the administration).
Completely agree. Just about everything I've read on the program points to one reason for its success -- Alice Waters. And there aren't many people out there with her kind of access, pull and resources.

All in all, the NSLP, like the education system as a whole, has been a great success in meeting its ORIGINAL

goal of preventing hunger in children. All meals meet nutrition guidelines as laid down by statute. Teaching nutrition as PART of the NSLP is another example of asking a government program to do something that it was not meant to do. The programs, such as Chef Waters, need to be thought of not as replacements for the NSLP but adjuncts.

What is most important to remember is that the NSLP is but one part of the food programs in schools.

ETA - history of the NSLP here

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Just about everything I've read on the program points to one reason for its success -- Alice Waters. And there aren't many people out there with her kind of access, pull and resources.

And her kitchen skills. I have no doubt whatsoever that the cafeteria crew at my child's elementary school could take fresh, organic ingredients, and cook them into tasteless mush. For the past two years, I've attended the Thanksgiving lunch at her school, which seems to be specifically designed to convince parents to pack lunch for their kids. I can only assume that they're trying to show off for the parents, but the overcooked green beans are the most edible item on the platter. My kid's a potatovore, but even she won't touch their mashed potatoes. And let's not get into the vile scraps of turkey drowned in some brown stuff.

She even concluded recently that the frozen pizza served on Fridays isn't good and is now at 100% lunches from home.

I really feel for the kids in the free lunch program. They deserve better.

If we are going to reform the school lunch program, drastically improved cooking skills are required.

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George's big thinking was on how we eat food: to get good quality ingredients, you need smaller quantities of expensive items (like meats) to make the prices lower. So make wraps, salads sprinkled with meats, rice dishes, pasta: things that use meat like a condiment rather than like a giant burger or chicken sandwich.

Yeah, the AF pies in the grocery store may cost $11, but that's because they have to include the costs of freezing, shipping, storing, etc. and then Whole Foods has to make a PROFIT on top of that. 1) He's talking about distributing to a local school district, so they're not paying retail prices and 2) he's talking about getting the food provided locally, he doesn't want AF from Vermont in every school. It's also about providing signage to inform students that what they are eating is locally grown and organic, and that's what gets them invested in it more than just eating the item itself. You also won't be feeding an elementary school kid an entire $11 pie.

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Changing the purchasing policies would only begin to scratch the surface. You'd have to ask the taxpayers or the parents to pony up more money -- if Montgomery County spent a dollar more a day on school lunches, it would add $25 million to the school budget.

You'd have to find and hire people who can actually cook. Agin, picking on Monkey County, that's 200 skilled tradespeople to hire, and keep, at salaries undoubtedly higher than the people dishing out the slop now. Plus, decent food takes longer to cook -- that means more kitchen staff.

Then, you have to get the kids to eat it, keeping the high-schoolers on campaus and keeping the little ones from throwing their lunches into the trash (or eating soda and chips from home).

But first, you have to make the parents give a damn, which, based on the contemporary American restaurant scene (Contemporary Restaurants, American Plan?) they don't.

A fine battle but, given the odds, I might settle for getting reading reading and math scores up or putting gym and music classes back into the schools.

Interesting thing to do: google "France school lunch" and see how they do it over there. This was just one illuminating post.

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You'd have to find and hire people who can actually cook.
That's assuming there's an actual, functioning kitchen. I've been told the schools in D.C. have facilities for accepting heating trays, plus fridges, etc.

Tearing down schools in disrepair and improving the ones left standing? New plans. New blueprints. Donations from Ikea, Sears...

Not sure carrying around raw eggs and sacks of flour has had much of an impact on child-rearing, but they could become school supplies. Give the students kitchens and culinary classrooms--just don't put nutritionists in front of the blackboard. Or my 7th-grade Home Ec teacher.

* * *

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There's a good interview and video with Alice Waters on this topic in today's Wall Street Journal - Cooking Up a Revolution:

WSJ: What is it about doing this at 64 that makes it easier, harder or, perhaps, more rewarding?

MS. WATERS: I am an elder statesman. I have a platform. I've been doing this restaurant for 36 years. I've been doing the program in the school for 12 years. That can be meaningful to certain people. A lot of my friends now are chief executive officers of businesses and engaged in politics. There's access to the powers that be. We need that in order to make this kind of change. So I'm taking advantage of it. I'm helping in any way I can by opening up the biggest doors I can open up.

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Last night my son's school had a fundraiser at Cheeburger Cheeburger.

A school fundraiser (ostensibly to benefit children) at a cheeseburger franchise that celebrates gluttony and heart disease with dad’s greasy picture on the wall, validates masculine reason with a “serious” 8/10oz sandwich (2270 calories with compulsory soda & fries) and whose unlimited-toppings war cry is “BIG IS BETTER”. That’s awesome. Oktoberfest would be an even better venue.

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