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  • National School Lunch Program

    Post #1 - June 15th, 2009, 9:46 am
    Post #1 - June 15th, 2009, 9:46 am Post #1 - June 15th, 2009, 9:46 am
    Inspired by Monica Eng's recent article(and a short correspondence,) I wrote the following letter to my government representatives that I thought I would share with you:

    I wanted to write to you concerns that have been brought up by this article: I recently corresponded with Monica Eng regarding school lunches, and she mentioned that she had spoken to you, and suggested I contact you to express my concerns.

    I have been concerned about school lunches for some time now; prior to my son entering elementary school, I had no idea just how bad they are – sadly, Ms. Eng’s article is only a beginning. For instance, while the nacho lunch she mentions looks awful, it is preferable to District 65’s most popular lunch, known as "Brunch for Lunch," which consists of cellophane-wrapped pancakes, french toast sticks, or waffles; a tub of HFCS syrup, canned fruit cocktail in syrup or fruit juice, a sausage link or string cheese, and a package of cookies. If this is what school foodservice is like in Evanston, health-conscious as we are - imagine what it must be like in less progressive community.

    Our local PTA Council arranged a meeting with the District’s food service directors, and I stood and expressed my concerns – but I believe they fell on deaf ears. For instance, when I said that it was unconscionable to serve a lunch of pancakes with a side of cookies, I was told that the cookies were “PhysEdibles whole-grain crackers” (nutritional information shows the “crackers” are about 25% sugar.) I was also told that this meal was created to be “popular” with kids who pay full-price for lunch. It is a strategy to cover the financial deficit created by offering daily lunch to the children who receive free and reduced-price lunches, as kids who pay full-price pay a higher percentage of the cost.

    One of my main concerns is that almost every one of these lunches, while they may or may not be nominally healthy, mimic junk food in some way. As a personal project, I’ve been studying the food desert in Chicago – and while I have no scientific basis for this statement, I believe that the school lunch has a direct effect on this particular health crisis. Children who are never exposed to whole or fresh foods are not going to seek them out voluntarily, nor, as adults, are they going to create an economic climate where businesses have an incentive to make healthy foods available to them.

    I understand this is an extremely complex and difficult legislative task – on the one hand, there need to be guidelines to ensure that our nation’s children are eating healthful food. On the other hand, however, it is these very guidelines that are in part responsible for this health crisis: they cannot be achieved with whole foods, and there are no guidelines on how to do so. If nutritional supplementation is indeed critical, we would be far better off offering children a multivitamin or vitamin-enriched drink along and accompanying it with real food.

    To give you an idea of how deeply entrenched highly processed junk foods are in the school lunch plan, following are some brand names that appear in the Evanston school lunches. What’s more, the huge foodservice conglomerates providing these foods also offer school districts incentives to continue using these products, along with offering marketing materials and direction on how to present these highly-processed foods as healthful and wholesome. You can go to almost any Wal-Mart and pick these items up in the freezer case or bread aisle, all of which are served regularly to our children:

    Tyson Popcorn Chicken
    Land O Lakes frozen macaroni and cheese
    Otis Spunkmeyer oatmeal cookies
    Trix Strawberry Banana Bash yogurt
    De Waffelbaker’s waffles or pancakes
    Bosco cheese-filled breadstick
    Goldfish PhysEdibles

    I am not a perfect parent: I have been known to send my son to school with lunchables on occasion. I was horrified, however, to discover that my tax dollars are paying our school district to do essentially the same thing or worse. If you are available during the next school year, I would like to invite you to my son’s school for lunch so you can see firsthand just how critical this issue has become.

    Thank you for your consideration,

    Michele Hays
  • Post #2 - June 16th, 2009, 9:40 pm
    Post #2 - June 16th, 2009, 9:40 pm Post #2 - June 16th, 2009, 9:40 pm
    M—you could always go this far in your crusade. Amazing story.

    Geo
    Sooo, you like wine and are looking for something good to read? Maybe *this* will do the trick! :)
  • Post #3 - June 16th, 2009, 9:58 pm
    Post #3 - June 16th, 2009, 9:58 pm Post #3 - June 16th, 2009, 9:58 pm
    Wow. That's quite an article, Geo, but not really where I'm heading - in fact, I was initially a bit wary of the "healthy school initiatives" at Sparky's school - though they have turned out to quite reasonably be built around portion control rather than insisting on carved canteloupes or turnips for birthday treats.

    What bothers me is not that kids occasionally get junk food - it's that kids get little or no real food. I don't think the health issues prevalent in children now were caused by snacks - we ate cupcakes and candy and Doritos at school celebrations when I was a kid, and diabetes was nearly unheard of. It's that by and large all school foods are "snack" foods. Not only is there no such thing as a free lunch, there's really nothing there resembling lunch.

    I forgot to add: Monica Eng wrote a follow-up note in The Stew here.
  • Post #4 - June 16th, 2009, 10:02 pm
    Post #4 - June 16th, 2009, 10:02 pm Post #4 - June 16th, 2009, 10:02 pm
    Michelle-I applaud you for taking this on. My kids are out of school now, but the lunch served in Evanston is considerably better than the ones served at my children's grade school in the late 1990's and high school in the early 2000's. Sad, huh? I never let my kids eat the lunches at school, they only bought the milk. At the time, they were some of the very few who didn't buy every day. Their friends were jealous of their sandwiches, fruit and homemade cookies. Which is completely opposite of me when I was a kid. My mom never bought any cookies, we only had homemade and I was jealous of the kids with Oreos.
    Now that my kids are older, they brag about my homemade meals and desserts. Your son probably already does that now, I've see what and how you cook! And he is learning good eating habits from you, which is the most important learning lesson of all.
    Good luck to you, and keep us posted.
  • Post #5 - June 17th, 2009, 6:43 pm
  • Post #6 - June 17th, 2009, 10:00 pm
    Post #6 - June 17th, 2009, 10:00 pm Post #6 - June 17th, 2009, 10:00 pm
    Does anybody know whether the organization "Parents Against Junk Food" (connected to Cook's Illustrated's Chris Kimball) has had any big successes?
  • Post #7 - June 17th, 2009, 11:01 pm
    Post #7 - June 17th, 2009, 11:01 pm Post #7 - June 17th, 2009, 11:01 pm
    Yeah, that lady in the NYT article sounds like a bit of a nutjob. Frankly, I think she's doing her kids a huge disservice through her volatile relationship with food - rather than teaching them that "treats" can be had occasionally and in moderation, she's broadcasting the message that sweets & snacks are evil poison, and that just one bite will make their foot fall off and will land an insulin pump on their belts. The second they leave her clutches & head off to college, what are the chances they'll go nuts and live off a steady diet of junk food & midnight pizzas (I speak from experience here)?

    Crazy extremists aside, it sounds to me like you're asking that a completely reasonable amount of attention be paid to what kids are eating. It's sad that schools teach kids (at least back when I was a kid) about the food pyramid, healthy eating, etc., but then those same schools turn around & make very questionable decisions on what to serve those kids based on subsidies, corporate sponsorships, etc. That picture of the CPS nachos in the Trib looked vile...it's unbelievable that school officials could think it's okay to serve that to kids.

    This system's clearly broken, and I think it's awesome that you're trying to fix it. I hope you're able to make some headway. A good friend of mine is a high-level administrator at a private school here in the city...I plan on sharing Monica Eng's article with him, and finding out what he thinks.
  • Post #8 - June 18th, 2009, 6:36 am
    Post #8 - June 18th, 2009, 6:36 am Post #8 - June 18th, 2009, 6:36 am
    MariaTheresa wrote:Does anybody know whether the organization "Parents Against Junk Food" (connected to Cook's Illustrated's Chris Kimball) has had any big successes?

    I did find them a while back when researching the issue - interestingly, Christopher Kimball's tipping point was the same as mine. They do offer a petition for school lunch reform, and are lobbying to address a number of issues, including in-school marketing of junk foods.

    The major part of the problem is that the federal guidelines (that come with the money) are so intractable that it's difficult for anyone, or even any group, to make a difference - I'm not certain, but I think the Organic School Project here in Chicago operates using grants and donations and refuses Federal dollars. Here's a link to a slide show presentation put on by our District's foodservice (the full menu is on page 20.) It details the guidelines - specifically, note that the guidelines require
    • limiting fat (less than 30%) and saturated fat (less than 10%) in meals
    • providing one-third of the Recommended Dietary Allowance(RDA) of calories, protein, calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C.
    • Must offer: 8 fl oz milk, 2oz meat/meat alternate, ¾ cup fruit/ vegetable + ½ cup over a week, 12 breads weekly and 664 calories/day for grades K-6, 825 cal grades 7-12

    Also note:
    Federal NSLP Reimbursement Rates:
    FREE = $2.59 REDUCED = $2.19 PAID = $0.26
    $3.00 (The average cost to prepare and serve a lunch)
    -1.50 Labor, equipment, fuel/delivery costs, service/maintenance, employee benefits and other indirect costs
    -1.50 Actual Food Cost (including milk) + Paper Goods
    •$2.59 - $3.00 = Deficit of $0.41/free meal
    •$2.19 - $3.00 = Deficit of $0.81/reduced meal
    •$2.76 - $3.00 = Deficit of $0.24/paid meal


    So, while I think many of the specific choices made by our school district should improve, I would agree that there's a systemic problem here. I hope Christopher Kimball's efforts gain traction.
  • Post #9 - June 18th, 2009, 10:52 pm
    Post #9 - June 18th, 2009, 10:52 pm Post #9 - June 18th, 2009, 10:52 pm
    For another reference point, FSP provides breakfast and lunch to many Chicago area schools, approximately 300 per their website. You can see their menus here. I've braved a few lunches including tacos and mini corn dogs. Most of it is unappealing to me.
  • Post #10 - June 19th, 2009, 2:48 pm
    Post #10 - June 19th, 2009, 2:48 pm Post #10 - June 19th, 2009, 2:48 pm
    Seems like the breakfasts are a little more in line with reality than the lunches: it does tip a little bit towards sugary, but I note that their pancakes and syrup come with fresh fruit. I do wonder what a nutri-doughnut is, though! :D

    I was poking around on google, and found this somewhat disturbing news video discussing the lobbying groups' effects on NSLP. I also found the USDA's site on NSLP.
  • Post #11 - June 19th, 2009, 3:46 pm
    Post #11 - June 19th, 2009, 3:46 pm Post #11 - June 19th, 2009, 3:46 pm
    Mhays wrote:Seems like the breakfasts are a little more in line with reality than the lunches: it does tip a little bit towards sugary, but I note that their pancakes and syrup come with fresh fruit. I do wonder what a nutri-doughnut is, though! :D

    I was poking around on google, and found this somewhat disturbing news video discussing the lobbying groups' effects on NSLP. I also found the USDA's site on NSLP.


    We get the breakfast program, but we must have something different than what is posted because I've never seen an egg sandwich or some of the "proper" breakfast items. It's bagels, a weird thing of granola, yogurt sometimes, weird "breakfast cookies". The fresh fruit I see with lunches is half a small apple, half a small orange, or sometimes a cup of pears in syrup type things.
  • Post #12 - June 19th, 2009, 5:20 pm
    Post #12 - June 19th, 2009, 5:20 pm Post #12 - June 19th, 2009, 5:20 pm
    I guess I wonder why we want the government to feed our kids at all. They don't do a very good job -- have never done a very good job (I can remember a lot of beige meals from my youth -- and I always lost weight the days mom packed me a lunch) -- and it gives them the false sense that they are somehow responsible for what we're eating (hence things like bans on foie gras).

    Feeding kids in devastatingly poor areas, where you know they're coming to school without breakfast, is one thing. But I'd like to see the government a little less responsible for what the average kid is eating, since they're clearly clueless. If they haven't improved in fifty years, I don't know why anyone thinks they'll improve now.

    No one needs three hot meals a day. Sack lunches are better for the kids, and they just might take away from the government the feeling that they get to tell us what to eat.
  • Post #13 - June 19th, 2009, 6:16 pm
    Post #13 - June 19th, 2009, 6:16 pm Post #13 - June 19th, 2009, 6:16 pm
    Cynthia wrote:Feeding kids in devastatingly poor areas, where you know they're coming to school without breakfast, is one thing. But I'd like to see the government a little less responsible for what the average kid is eating, since they're clearly clueless. If they haven't improved in fifty years, I don't know why anyone thinks they'll improve now.

    No one needs three hot meals a day. Sack lunches are better for the kids, and they just might take away from the government the feeling that they get to tell us what to eat.

    Sack lunch is currently most definitely the way to go, from the perspective of being able to control the nutrition of a kid's lunch.

    However, the socioeconomic backgrounds of kids at a school aren't always cut & dry...what about schools that have "devastatingly poor" kids and more financially privileged kids (Lincoln Park High School, for example)? Should food be provided only to certain children based on financial need? Furthermore, does having money automatically equip someone with the ability to make responsible nutrition decisions? In schools where the children are predominantly from disadvantaged backgrounds, what kind of food should they be given - healthy foods that encourage healthy eating habits, or the nutritionally-void junk they're currently being served?

    Also, most kids' sack lunches sit unrefrigerated for 4-5 hours (counting travel time to school), which raises food safety issues. PB&J sandwiches are fairly non-perishable, but aren't the healthiest thing to eat everyday. What about other sack lunch standbys, like ham & cheese, turkey, etc.? According to the source quoted in this article (Judy Dodd, "a registered dietician, assistant professor of sports medicine and nutrition for the University of Pittsburgh, and a nutrition adviser for Giant Eagle"),
    Unless there's nothing to spoil in the bag, food cannot safely be left at more than 45 degrees for longer than two cumulative hours -- and that clock starts ticking as soon as the food leaves your refrigerator, Ms. Dodd said.

    While you might have left your lunch unrefrigerated for longer than two hours as a kid, today's food supply is much more complicated and potentially more contaminated than it used to be, she said.

    "Don't take the chance -- we have more processed, pre-sliced food, more time zones to get it from the producer to your house and then to school," she said. "With foodborne illness, a lot depends on how many people handled it and the temperature it was kept at."

    Frozen ice packs & insulated lunch bags can help with this, but some of the more financially disadvantaged parents might not be able to afford these things (especially when their kids do what all kids are wont to do, which is lose stuff).

    Finally, even that tried-and-true PB&J might not even fly - if peanut allergies are an issue, that PB&J might not be permitted for a particular class or the entire student body. Same goes for those peanut butter sandwich crackers, trail mix with peanuts, peanut butter-laden "ants on a log", and Snickers bar (which, as you know, is famously "packed with peanuts").

    So while I agree with you that sack lunches are currently the best option whenever possible, I don't think it's reasonable or feasible to do away with school-provided lunches altogether. And as long as schools are providing lunches, I think it's important that schools understand that what they're making available to kids not only affect their health, but also their attitudes about healthy eating.
  • Post #14 - June 19th, 2009, 8:43 pm
    Post #14 - June 19th, 2009, 8:43 pm Post #14 - June 19th, 2009, 8:43 pm
    Surely it would cost less for a school to have a refrigerator in each classroom than it is to feed kids meals every day.

    And while parents may not always make great choices for kids, the schools seem to never make great choices -- and they've been doing it for 50 years.

    And why not have food just for the kids who are poorer? We don't give everyone food stamps. We don't give everyone unemployment. Not everyone goes to the food pantry. Why do we have to feed every kid if we decide to feed those in need? We just let people apply for lunches, as they apply for other forms of aid. I don't mind paying taxes to feed someone who is less fortunate than I am. I do mind paying taxes to feed kids whose parents are making $300,000 a year.

    Of course, I'd like to see this controlled at the local level. I remember when I was in college in California, kids with Corvettes were getting food stamps because they had no source of income, while I, who took buses everywhere, couldn't get food stamps because I worked for $2 per hour six hours a week as the French department secretary. Because there was no local control, it was all handled by the state government, the abuse was easy.
    "All great change in America begins at the dinner table." Ronald Reagan

    http://midwestmaize.wordpress.com
  • Post #15 - June 19th, 2009, 8:57 pm
    Post #15 - June 19th, 2009, 8:57 pm Post #15 - June 19th, 2009, 8:57 pm
    Since you mentioned Lincoln Park High, I looked up their data. According to the Illinois Interactive Report Card, which is hosted by NIU and has info for every school and district in the state, LPH's low income students comprise 43% of their student body in FY2008, which is the LOWEST it's been since 1999.

    LPH's data here

    To compare, Oak Park River Forest High School (OPRF) had 11.6% for the same year. MHays's district, Evanston 65 with 15 schools, had 40%. I don't think Evanston or Lincoln Park fit the description of "devastatingly poor" areas, but there are plenty of children there who qualify for and benefit from school lunch programs.

    If you want to check your own district or school:
    iirc.niu.edu > search for and select your school/district > about students > educational environment

    Families do have to apply for free or reduced lunch. They must also show a valid medical card or proof of income to show they meet the requirements of the program. Anyone can order the hot lunch or breakfast program. Some pay full price, some pay reduced, some receive free lunch and breakfast. The difference between the actual cost and the gov't reimbursement is covered by the district. This paperwork is handled by the school and submitted for reimbursement.
  • Post #16 - June 19th, 2009, 9:15 pm
    Post #16 - June 19th, 2009, 9:15 pm Post #16 - June 19th, 2009, 9:15 pm
    One thing to keep in mind is the nutrition requirements for schools are tabulated on a weekly basis, so all nutrition counts like calories, sodium, fiber, carbohydrates, protein, etc, are not based only on the choices offered that day - they are averaged out over the school week. When your child eats school lunch only one day of the week, the nutritional value for that meal is likely skewed beyond what a parent would expect.

    Many schools do not even meet the national requirements for a healthy lunch and are therefore not reimbursed for the free lunch program. See this presentation from last year's American Dietetics Show for stats: http://www.eatright.org/ada/files/231._2._Wilson_and_3._Miller.pdf

    One of the major limiting factors to having healthier lunches in schools are the decisions the students make when they're in the lunch line. According to the American Dietetics Association, schools report 90% of students come through the lunch line on chicken nugget day, but when brown rice stir fry with fresh vegetables day rolls around, only 25% of students buy lunch. When a school goes to the trouble to buy fresh vegetables and makes a scratch meal and then has to throw most of that food away, they aren't going to continue to do it and incur the cost of paying what they refer to as a more "skilled worker" to create a scratch meal if they don't have a good reception from students.

    In many ways, this is reflective of the parents who feed their children chicken tenders and ketchup and Easy Mac most nights. Kids will make similar choices when dining at their school cafeterias. If the child is not used to eating broccoli and snow peas, he will probably not risk his school lunch on foreign territory like the scratch made stir fry example. Now, I'm sure none of you LTHers can be accused of behavior such as this, but your children go to school with the masses who can't be trusted. I suggest going to PTA meetings and starting/joining your child's healthy school lunch initiative. Yes this will take more effort on your part, but clearly neither the school administration nor the gov't is going to do any better without a little nudge, (i.e. thorn in the side) from the parents.

    And if sodium is any concern in your child's diet, eating school lunch should be out of the question. (See page 3 of presentation for chart)
  • Post #17 - June 19th, 2009, 9:21 pm
    Post #17 - June 19th, 2009, 9:21 pm Post #17 - June 19th, 2009, 9:21 pm
    The reason we don't offer lunches only to poor students is so they are not called out as being underprivileged. Grade school kids torture each other enough without being labeled as too poor to eat.
  • Post #18 - June 19th, 2009, 9:51 pm
    Post #18 - June 19th, 2009, 9:51 pm Post #18 - June 19th, 2009, 9:51 pm
    I'm with Cynthia on this: why the insistence on hot food? In the summer, Evanston offers a USDA-administrated program called the Summer Food Service Program, intended to ensure food is available when kids aren't in school. While it's barebones, it's a much smaller, less legislated program - and I consider it a far better lunch: a sandwich (often on a hamburger or hot dog bun, always white bread) a few slices of lunchmeat, a tiny salad or lettuce and tomato to go on the sandwich, a squeeze packet of mustard or mayo, a fruit, sometimes fruit juice, always milk, and either a bag of chips or a cookie. It's all in reasonable portion sizes, (I feel sorry for the high school seniors I see trying to make a meal of it, but it's great for gradeschoolers,) and there seems to be a reasonable balance between food and treats. It's available to school-age children, though its target is low-income kids eligible for NSLP. If schools don't have kitchens, isn't this kind of lunch more reasonable? And, frankly, how hard would it be to augment a simple sandwich with soup, if hot food is indeed crucial to the program?

    While I agree that bureaucracy is in large part responsible for the sorry state of the NSLP, the program has been instrumental in curbing hunger in children and relieving or reducing what's called "food insecurity." Unfortunately, the program is already struggling with the bias created by free and reduced-price lunch; I would think a lunch system exclusively for low-income children might negatively impact an already vulnerable population of students. It's been documented that children prefer to go hungry rather than reveal their free or reduced-price lunch status. Interestingly, a la carte foods, often used by schools to help subsidize school lunch, are not available to kids recieving free or reduced-price lunch - and are often offered in a separate area per NSLP guidelines, creating a visible separation between "free lunch" kids and those who pay for their lunch. Two lunch lines are common in many schools - and, while many schools are trying to combat this stigma by switching to a debit card system, the junk foods remain at the heart of the problem.

    Local control is another issue: apparently, in its infancy, many determinations of NSLP were made at the local level - and apparently it was rife with abuse. In her book School Lunch Politics Susan Levine describes one Florida supervisor offering the program to a family whose father was about to go to the hospital - but revoking it once she discovered the family owned a television set. I'm not sure what the answer is: I'd like to see more flexibility, but I think we still need guidelines to ensure that kids get what they need..
  • Post #19 - June 19th, 2009, 11:31 pm
    Post #19 - June 19th, 2009, 11:31 pm Post #19 - June 19th, 2009, 11:31 pm
    Hot lunches are emphasized because in some cases, the school's hot lunch is the only meal some kids will eat in a day. That's not to say that a cold sandwich would not be a fine alternative. The NSLP was created, among other reasons (such as nutrition "education"), to keep classroom attendance up (which the NSLP has helped to do) and the logic may be that people are enticed by a hot lunch more than they are by a bologna sandwich.

    Elements of a possible solution could include:
    1. cooperative bulk buying with other local schools
    2. working with farmers for guaranteed volumes of crops
    3. implementing a school or community garden that teaches students where their food comes from while nourishing them with healthful ingredients
    Plus these suggestions from Alice Waters.

    At the other extreme to Susan Levine's example is one from Katie Wilson, President of the School Nutrition Association, where a school that she had been foodservice director for had such a strong coalition of parents involved in teaching students "nutrition lessons" that all parents were forbidden from bringing in cupcakes for the classroom on their child's birthday. Any food eaten outside of the "healthy school initiative" undermined the lessons students were supposed to have been learning by observation from eating in their cafeteria.
  • Post #20 - June 20th, 2009, 1:01 am
    Post #20 - June 20th, 2009, 1:01 am Post #20 - June 20th, 2009, 1:01 am
    I realize that being singled out is an issue for kids -- have experienced it myself, in fact, though for different reasons -- but a few things come to mind.

    First -- they say that no one makes fun of fat kids anymore because everyone is fat. If you're at a school where 43 percent of the students are poor, wouldn't that potentially have the same effect?

    Second -- if we go with the refrigerator idea, how hard would it be for someone to just slip in the extra lunches before kids arrive -- maybe issue standard name tags for everyone to put on their lunches, so all the name tags look the same, whether they're from home or are aid.

    Third -- what about schools in Wilmette, Kenilworth, Lake Forest, Winnetka -- are there really a lot of poor kids there that we need to be worrying about? If not, why are tax dollars paying for lunches at those schools -- so they won't feel singled out for being well off?

    There is no reason helping the poor, serving a wholesome lunch, and staying within budgets are necessarily mutually exclusive concepts.

    As for abuses -- when has a giant bureaucracy ever led to fewer abuses? Now the abuses can blanket the countryside, instead of just affecting one school (where vigilant parents might have been able to intervene without having to march on Washington). Also -- for those who are concerned about locally sourced foods -- how likely is it that a national program will ever be looking to the local organic farmer to feed the school.

    I do like the idea of kids having an on-site garden, not just to learn, but anyone who knows kids knows they're more likely to consume something they participated in growing.

    I think we can have it all -- not killing the kids with garbage food and helping those who need help, while still reducing the amount of control the national government has on telling people what to eat.
    "All great change in America begins at the dinner table." Ronald Reagan

    http://midwestmaize.wordpress.com
  • Post #21 - June 20th, 2009, 1:25 pm
    Post #21 - June 20th, 2009, 1:25 pm Post #21 - June 20th, 2009, 1:25 pm
    My son goes to a CPS magnet high school with a 55 percent low-income rate. Every year CPS parents are asked to fill out a form to see if their children are eligible for free or reduced lunch. We don’t qualify, but clearly the majority of kids at his (excellent) school do. The lunches at his school are pretty awful. Everyday available dishes are the nachos described memorably by Monica Eng, breaded chicken sandwiches on a bun, and pizza. My son says the nachos are chips with brown mystery meat and cheese goop that isn’t real cheese. He can make the chicken sandwich edible by adding the iceberg lettuce and ranch dressing from the salad cups that are also available. In addition, each day there is a different main dish, such as ravioli or hamburger. His school only has ovens to bake or reheat. Thus the fries, served with everything, are limp and awful; he says the kids never eat them even though they are piled on their plates. The best things they make are the desserts, which are at least baked on premises, even if from packaged mixes.

    He thinks many kids, perhaps as many as a third to a half, don’t eat at all during the day because the food is so bad. Upperclassmen can go off campus, but the off-campus places to buy food are way more expensive than even the full (subsidized) $2.10 lunch in the cafeteria. What is sad is that many of these kids need those meals, and we taxpayers are paying for the terrible food that is being served. Some go home to make their own dinners or eat fast food out. We have found that many kids never have dinner with their families and are amazed to learn that family dinners are standard at our house.

    Even for parents who care, who try, and who can afford to feed their children decently, it is difficult. It is hard to pack and send lunches from home every day, especially when your kid, like mine, leaves the house at 6:30 or 6:40 a.m.

    Of course the lunches should be improved nutritionally and in terms of taste. Getting anything improved in the Chicago Public Schools is a job—I speak as a veteran parent of many years. Monica Eng’s article and these discussions are at least a start.
  • Post #22 - June 20th, 2009, 3:33 pm
    Post #22 - June 20th, 2009, 3:33 pm Post #22 - June 20th, 2009, 3:33 pm
    While I applaud Michele's efforts to improve the quality of the food served in her district's school cafeterias, I think that the efforts are going to be futile. In my limited experiences both as a student and later a food service manager, I believe that the program is operated more for the benefit of various interest groups than in meeting the actual needs of students.

    Most of the schools that I attended were in ancient buildings in "not so great" areas that lacked cafeterias. Our lunch consisted of what we brought from home and milk was available for sale, generally at really low prices. The three years that I spent in a suburban public schools were almost a culinary nirvana - real food and with the exception of hamburgers on Wednesdays, almost none of the current entrees. And at least 40% of the food served was tossed in the garbage. I gained a lot of weight those years as the other kids would give me what they were throwing away. Gradually, the district moves away from real food and started giving kids what they knew they would eat.

    When you are running a school food service, there is generally ONE consideration - cost. In general, if you want to be seen as a success, you close down the kitchens in all the schools, consolidate food preparation into one facility and truck the food around to the schools. You try to utilize all of the government food when available. The USDA commodity food ranges from decent to absolutely nasty. However, buying a good quality food costs money which is at a premium. Even if you dumped the government food, most states require that you purchase the food from the lowest bidder, which guarantees mediocrity. (Do you really think that the lowest bidder is able to undercut competitors by 25% and still send you good food?). I have never run a school food service but did run a state hospital with similar procurement practices. In that job, I was not permitted to contact the vendor for anything prior to delivery; all communication had to go through a purchasing bureaucrat.

    In the "old days", there were cooks and lunch ladies preparing the food, often from scratch. However, since all that labor costs money, nearly all food is prepared at a processor - and usually through the USDA.

    I have seen only one really great elementary school lunch program in the past ten years. Two or three semi-retired ladies and a cook run a lunchroom in a small inner-city Catholic school. The emphasis is on nutritional lunches and they are there to actively encourage students to eat the lunch. No chicken fingers, few fried items. They get full support from the staff of the school.
  • Post #23 - June 20th, 2009, 7:17 pm
    Post #23 - June 20th, 2009, 7:17 pm Post #23 - June 20th, 2009, 7:17 pm
    jlawrence01 wrote:While I applaud Michele's efforts to improve the quality of the food served in her district's school cafeterias, I think that the efforts are going to be futile. In my limited experiences both as a student and later a food service manager, I believe that the program is operated more for the benefit of various interest groups than in meeting the actual needs of students.

    I don't disagree at all, J - except on one point. This program is up for reauthorization this year (apparently every five years) and I think policy changes on the federal level will help. Far more nutritious lunches are available for far less money (e.g. sandwich and legume-heavy vegetable soup, hummus and pita bread, etc.) So WRITE YOUR CONGRESSPEOPLE. For example: a group of Evanstonians, many of whom are involved in my school district, have been working directly with our State Representative, Julie Hamos. Together they are promoting access to healthy, local food in Illinois and, eventually hope to open the way for local foods to be served in our schools. Sometimes, a little political action can go a long way.

    I had also forwarded my letter to CSPI (interviewed in the above video about the food industry lobby) among other people, and recieved this reply: Thank you so much for the Chicago Trib article and copy of your letter to Congresswoman Schakowsky. Your taking action by writing her is exactly what is needed, multiplied by as many voices as possible....Here are some additional ideas for improving school meals, in case you haven't already seen them on our website:
    http://www.cspinet.org/nutritionpolicy/schoolmeals.html
    http://www.cspinet.org/nutritionpolicy/ImproveSchoolFoods.html


    In the second link, at the bottom of the page, there's a link to a USDA PDF file that I found especially interesting: it's the USDA's analysis of this issue - where they note that "competitive" or "nonreimbursible" foods (read "junk") don't really cover their costs:
    Balancing Nutrition, Participation, and Cost in the National School Lunch Program wrote:The availability of competitive foods in a school has been found to reduce participation in NSLP, decrease nutrient intake from lunches, and increase the amount of food left uneaten and thrown away by students. The availability of unhealthy foods also sends a mixed message to students about the importance of nutrition.

    Surprisingly, FNS’s cost study finds that the revenues from nonreimbursable food sales do not cover their costs on average. Revenues from nonreimbursable foods covered less of their costs (both full and reported costs) than was the case for NSLP lunches. Revenues from NSLP lunches covered 93 percent of their full costs, compared with 61 percent for nonreimbursable meals.


    I think two basic improvements could be made: asking that schools simply not serve foods outside the scope of the program (no junk food vending, no "a la carte" junk foods, etc.) and offering an incentive (e.g. higher reimbursement rate) for lunches that use minimally-processed foods - but without a lobbying group on behalf of children and parents to combat the food industry lobbyists, you're right - nothing will change.
  • Post #24 - June 22nd, 2009, 8:56 am
    Post #24 - June 22nd, 2009, 8:56 am Post #24 - June 22nd, 2009, 8:56 am
    After viewing the video above, I did a little googling and found a contact email for the Institute of Medicine, which is currently reviewing the NSLP. I recieved this reply:

    Thank you for your input concerning the Institute of Medicine's study on the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Programs. Your comment is appreciated and will be passed along to the committee to be taken into consideration. Comments, articles or other data intended for committee consideration may be forwarded electronically at any time to: FNBSchoolMeals@nas.edu
  • Post #25 - June 22nd, 2009, 10:29 am
    Post #25 - June 22nd, 2009, 10:29 am Post #25 - June 22nd, 2009, 10:29 am
    Hi,

    If Institute of Medicine is anything like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, my doubting-Thomas mode clicks in. Sensational headlines is pretty much what I associate with them and their type, rather than pragmatic public policy.

    Regards,
    Cathy2

    "You'll be remembered long after you're dead if you make good gravy, mashed potatoes and biscuits." -- Nathalie Dupree
    Facebook, Twitter, Greater Midwest Foodways, Road Food 2012: Podcast
  • Post #26 - June 22nd, 2009, 10:45 am
    Post #26 - June 22nd, 2009, 10:45 am Post #26 - June 22nd, 2009, 10:45 am
    The Institute of Medicine is one of the United States National Academies, under the National Academy of Sciences; it is not an issue-driven lobbying group like CSPI. However, if you watch the video I posted upthread, you will see that it is under heavy lobby by the food industry as it tries to "..reflect new developments in nutrition science, increase the availability of key food groups in the school meal programs, and allow these programs to better meet the nutritional needs of children, foster healthy eating habits, and safeguard children’s health"
  • Post #27 - June 22nd, 2009, 11:07 am
    Post #27 - June 22nd, 2009, 11:07 am Post #27 - June 22nd, 2009, 11:07 am
    Fixing Lunch - an article Monica Eng referred me to, about how NSLP is handled by foodservice director Tony Geraci in Baltimore schools - thanks for the heads-up, Monica!
  • Post #28 - June 23rd, 2009, 10:01 am
    Post #28 - June 23rd, 2009, 10:01 am Post #28 - June 23rd, 2009, 10:01 am
    When I was a kid on the south side, 95% or more of the school walked home for lunch. In my house, we ate the same lunch every day. A bowl of soup and a sandwich. The soup changed, but in nine years we never had more than five or six different soups. The sandwich was fresh bread and almost always peanut butter and jelly.

    Does the attempt at diversity negatively affect the school lunch program? On the north shore we see menus with "Breakfast for lunch", "Ravioli", burgers, etc., etc.

    Why can't it be stripped down to two healthy hot soups (realizing sodium in soup is an issue), fresh sanwiches (choice of two) and cut up veggies. (I realize that I've just lost you but I'm going to keep typing)

    And for drink you have a choice between milk or water.

    If less were made really well and options were limited ("no soda, only milk or water"...."no chips....carrots and celery") wouldnt that be good? Or are sanwiches too complex to assemble every day.

    I guess I think a fresh turkey or tuna fish sandwich from only a couple of ingredients is better for my kids than the other options. And if kids came into school knowing it was only going to be fresh sandwiches, they'd be ok with it. It's the unlimited choices that takes the train off the tracks.
  • Post #29 - June 23rd, 2009, 10:24 am
    Post #29 - June 23rd, 2009, 10:24 am Post #29 - June 23rd, 2009, 10:24 am
    Nope, I'm right with you, auxen - except I know the cut-up fresh veggies and fruits are among the most expensive items our district buys - but they could be one option of several (for instance, the string cheese might be a good accompaniment for a tomato soup and a ham sandwich - and I wouldn't mind packaged crackers if the other two offerings were healthy)

    What's more, soup could be made in a district foodservice facility cheaply and without requiring a lot of addiitonal labor, and could be made vegan to allow for many different diet restrictions kids have (vegan soup allows for kosher, vegetarian, etc.) and would get vegetables into kids' diets - if house-made, salt could be restricted. And it could probably be made cheaply from local vegetables - soup veggies don't have to be good-looking, just safe to eat. At our school, we could use the leftovers in our school garden's compost pile without having to sort to remove meat and fat.

    The only reason I can think of why this isn't already a strategy is that it might present a logistical difficulty when lunch is heat-and-serve and presented on styrofoam trays, and has to be carried by children from the lunch line to the table. I can't think of any other reason why this isn't a feasible alternative to the junk they're eating now. I suppose it could be served in laminated cups like bubble tea, but I imagine we're talking cost, then. Anybody have experience with soup in a large foodservice situation?
  • Post #30 - June 23rd, 2009, 11:24 am
    Post #30 - June 23rd, 2009, 11:24 am Post #30 - June 23rd, 2009, 11:24 am
    Well, Mhays, you're not alone in your fight. I just got the notice below from Slow Food. I'm not sure any school system could afford the kind of food Slow Food would approve of. And it still places responsibility for what kids eat in the hands of the government, which only lasts until the next election. But maybe it's a start.

    Dear Members and Supporters of Slow Food USA,

    Remember this date: September 7, 2009. We’ll look back on that day as the moment when people across America took a stand about the food our children eat at school.

    As you know, children who grow up enjoying food that is both delicious and good for them learn healthy eating habits that last throughout their lives. Those habits can start at school – but only if we give schools the resources to serve real food instead of the overly processed fast food that endangers their health.

    To make that happen, our leaders in Congress need to hear that when it comes to our children, change can’t wait.

    That’s why we’re organizing a National Eat-In for Labor Day, Sept. 7, 2009. On that day, people across America will gather with their neighbors for public potlucks that send our nation’s leaders a clear message: It’s time to provide our children with real food at school.
     
    To get Congress’ attention, we’re going to need the help of all kinds of people: parents, teachers, community leaders, kids and people who’ve never done anything like this before. We’re going to need everyone to pitch in.

    But the people we need most are Slow Food members and supporters. You’re the front line of the food movement, and we’re counting on you to tell your friends, to contact your legislators and to organize Eat-Ins for Sept. 7.

    Our campaign web site will guide you through the process, and our campaign team is here to provide support. We’ll give you everything you need to get involved, starting today.

    And we mean today—because with the President calling for health care reform and the First Lady teaching kids to grow food on the White House Lawn, we’ve got an opening to pass legislation that gives kids the opportunity to grow up healthy.

    This fall, Congress will be debating whether to update the Child Nutrition Act, which is the law that determines what kind of food kids eat at school. By giving schools the resources to serve real food, we can make sure that the legacy we’re leaving our children is a future filled with opportunity, security and good health.

    We can only do it if we act now. It’s time to get real food into schools.
     
    For more information, and to join our campaign, go to http://www.slowfoodusa.org/timeforlunch
     
    Best regards,

    Josh, Brian, Jerusha, Gordon, Leah, Callie, Alex, Stephanie

    The Time for Lunch campaign team
    timeforlunch@slowfoodusa.org
    "All great change in America begins at the dinner table." Ronald Reagan

    http://midwestmaize.wordpress.com

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