Growing Children, Shrinking Budgets

21 April 2008

At least once a week when I arrive at my afternoon job, I can smell the school lunch from the parking lot. The intense aroma of garlic wafted across as it simmered in spaghetti sauce this past Monday...the seasoned breading on the chicken bits greeted me on Thursday. I have to say that I have had this experience nowhere else. The school lunch actually smells appealing. (I can only imagine how breakfast must be since I am not there in the mornings.) Considering that ~85% of our kids are eligible for free/reduced lunch, it's a good thing that the food can stimulate the senses as well as fill the stomach. No food is actually cooked in our school---the bulk of the work is done elsewhere in the district and then trucked over to us. Warming ovens (or refrigerators) keep the food in a ready state for everyone until serving time. The lunchroom is a buzzing place. Kids know how to enter their number into the keypads, pick up their trays, and get their food. For those of you who haven't been in a school cafeteria as of late, you will notice that milk no longer comes in cartons. It actually comes in bags like the one pictured above. You'll just have to imagine the scene with hungry children stabbing straws into these.

I have been thinking about the importance of our lunchroom because of some recent articles about the federal school lunch program. Susan Levine has a new book out with a historical perspective on the program (full review can be found here):

Nutrition advocates who wanted to see all children, rich and poor, fed nutritious lunches had to settle for “a school lunch program that was designed primarily as an outlet for surplus food.” Though the program would benefit millions of children, it was not especially well designed. In great part, the food that came to lunchrooms consisted of whatever happened to be in surplus at the moment, be it dried beans, beets, or butter. The program was housed in the Department of Agriculture, so farmers’ interests came first, and the Department did little to oversee states’ operation of their lunch programs. Indeed, from their perches on the Senate agriculture committee, Russell and his colleague, Allen Ellender, saw to it that states’ rights were defended from federal intrusion. State and local officials were free to set whatever criteria they pleased for participation in the program.

More fundamentally, and perhaps surprisingly, the program simply was not designed to feed all the children that needed to be fed. Federal appropriations were not pegged to the number of needy children, and states were required to contribute matching funds, which often were raised by charging pupils for lunch. The program provided no aid to old schools that lacked cafeterias. So, many nonwhite, poor, and undernourished students in crumbling schools did without while white, middle-class kids in new buildings were able to purchase meals on the cheap.

Unfortunately, Levine’s narrative concludes without giving the reader a good sense of how well the school lunch program currently operates. We read that in the 1970s, it was turned into an entitlement program and put on permanent appropriation. We also learn that the feds’ underfunding of the program provoked local officials to start contracting out cafeteria operations to private providers, like Sodexho. The feds also get called out for loosening regulations to permit junk food vendors into the schools.

But the reader does not get the sense that the program now works better than it ever did. Which it does. Agricultural interests, though potent, no longer dominate the program. Today, most of the federal support for the program comes in the form of cash, not surplus food. Administrative tweaks have helped to reduce discrimination and create more uniform operations nationwide.


Still, the program is not what it could be. Since Levine wrote a straight history, she did not include any suggestions for improving the program. So, for the sake of provoking discussion, please allow me to suggest a few possible reforms. First, make the National School Lunch Program free to all children. This would wipe out the stigma that deters children from participating in the program, and would also save localities heaps of paperwork. Second, decouple the program from the surplus commodity program entirely. Children should eat food that is good for them, not what farm lobbyists want them to eat. Third, require the federal government to pay the full cost of the meals served and forbid schools from having vending machines and ala carte dining. No parent of any sense allows her kid to choose pizza over broccoli and to graze on junk food each day. Why should schools? Fourth, have the federal government deliver the federal school lunch dollars directly to each child in the form of a meal debit card, good for one school lunch per day. This would cut reams of red tape and goad schools into serving desirable meals that meet current national nutritional standards.


Meanwhile, over at the WaPo, the current economic considerations of the program are raising some concerns about just how much families who pay can actually afford for a school lunch.

Each year Uncle Sam, in an effort to ensure the neediest children get healthy meals, gives schools a little more cash to help feed students. But school officials nationwide say the federal share hasn't kept pace with rising costs. This year, the U.S. Agriculture Department is giving schools $2.47 per lunch to serve free meals to children from the poorest families, up from $2.40 last year, a 3 percent increase. In the same time, milk prices rose about 17 percent and bread nearly 12 percent.

The federal government provides $2.07 per meal for students eligible for a reduced-price lunch and 23 cents a meal for students who pay full price. Schools also receive some foods, including meat, cheese and canned goods, purchased by the federal government.

School meal programs across the country are run somewhat like restaurants, relying on federal and state subsidies and profits from meal and snack sales and catering services to buy food and pay workers. Rising labor costs, coupled with the recent push for healthier meals, which has meant serving higher-priced foods such as whole grain breads and fresh vegetables, has squeezed budgets. Soaring food prices make it even harder to break even. "We do not want to serve our students highly refined sugar and flour products, which are more affordable," Parham told the House Education and Labor Committee, "but we are continually being pushed down this path."

Matt has a much better summary of all of this than I could hope to write here. At the moment, I'm just trying to think about what all of this will mean with the youngsters I work with each day. Will it mean smaller servings? Less nutritional food? Fewer students eligible for meals? For some of our kids, the breakfast and lunch served by the school is all they get to eat. We have kids who try to hoard leftovers (although the rule is that no food is allowed to leave the cafeteria) because they're just plain hungry...and it's a long time between Friday's lunch and Monday's breakfast. Is this what a 7-year old brain needs to be focusing on?

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