From The New York Times
By Bettina Elias Siegel
January 15, 2016
"Here in America, schools are doing the best they can to meet the nutritional needs of millions of children every day, but unfortunately our society is unwilling to do what it takes to truly feed them well."
There's something about comparing America’s school food to the superior meals in other countries’ schools that we seem to enjoy, in a masochistic sort of way.
The latest example is Michael Moore’s new documentary, “Where to Invade Next,” which opens nationwide next month. Mr. Moore visits a village in Normandy and finds schoolchildren eating scallops, lamb skewers and a cheese course. He tells us, astonishingly, that the chef “spends less per lunch than we do in our schools in the United States,” and ends the segment by showing French students and adults photos of the food served in a Boston high school.
As they pore over the pictures in puzzlement and horror, we read subtitled comments like “Seriously, what is that?” and “Frankly, that’s not food.”
That scene drew a lot of laughs, but as someone who has written about school food for almost six years, it made me want to scream in frustration. One might easily conclude from this segment that our students could have these same delicious meals, cooked from scratch, if only our school districts weren’t cheap, mismanaged or somehow captive to the processed food industry.
But the problem with America’s school food has little to do with the schools themselves.
Let’s start with money. The federal government provides a little over $3 per student per lunch, and school districts receive a smaller contribution from their state. But districts generally require their food departments to pay their own overhead, including electricity, accounting and trash collection.
Most are left with a dollar and change for food — and no matter what Mr. Moore says, no one is buying scallops and lamb on that meager budget.
Contrast this with France, where meal prices are tied to family income and wealthy parents can pay around $7 per meal. Give that sum to an American school food services director and you may want to have tissues handy as he’s likely to break down in incredulous tears.
Then there’s labor and infrastructure. We criticize schools’ reliance on highly processed, heat-’n’-eat food, but cooking from scratch requires adequate cold storage and food preparation facilities, as well as trained workers.
Since 2009, the federal government has provided around $200 million for school kitchen improvements, but in 2014 the Pew Charitable Trusts showed that schools’ total needs exceed $5 billion. And even if a kitchen is fully outfitted for cooking, the cost of hiring skilled cooks can be prohibitive.
Given these considerable challenges, it isn’t surprising that cooking from scratch is the exception in our country’s schools. There are districts serving exemplary meals. But some are often either running a deficit or reliant on private philanthropy, which is hardly a model on which we can rely nationwide.
And what about the students on the other side of the serving line? Nothing in our nation’s food environment primes them to embrace fresh, healthful school meals.
The top four sources of calories in the average American child’s diet are grain-based desserts, pizza, soda and sports drinks, and bread. One-third eat fast food every single day. More than 90 percent don’t eat enough vegetables. And each year, our children are bombarded by around $2 billion in child-directed food and beverage advertising, much of which promotes the least healthy products.
Ideally, of course, the cafeteria would be a classroom in which to counter these unhealthy forces, but the fiscal survival of any school food program rests on student participation. When a director swaps out pizza for a wholesome sandwich or serves salad instead of fries, she risks losing customers — to home-packed lunches, vending machine snacks or off-campus fast food — and running her program into the red.
She also has to compete with the on-campus junk food that’s sold to raise money for the band or football team, a practice limited by recent regulation but far from eradicated.
Contrast all this with France, where vending machines are banned on campus and even home-packed lunches are discouraged. French law requires that junk food ads bear a countermessage promoting healthful eating. And France takes its citizens’ food literacy so seriously that it provides “taste training” in its schools.
America isn’t France, of course, and we’re unlikely to ever serve our schoolchildren roasted guinea fowl or a daily cheese course. But we’re so far on the other end of the spectrum, it’s laughable.
Case in point: This coming week, Congress is scheduled to take up the Child Nutrition Act, which every five years sets the funding for federal child nutrition programs, including school meals. Yet despite all the financial pressures school districts face, few expect the per-meal reimbursement rate to rise significantly.
School meals in other countries fascinate us because they reflect a society’s true food culture, as well as its regard for its children. Here in America, schools are doing the best they can to meet the nutritional needs of millions of children every day, but unfortunately our society is unwilling to do what it takes to truly feed them well.
Bettina Elias Siegel writes about children and food at The Lunch Tray.