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School Lunch: Brother Can You Spare (More Than) A Dime?

October 15, 2012 | Tags: Featured , Food | Post comment

School Lunch: Brother Can You Spare (More Than) A Dime?

 

The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 requires public schools to follow updated nutritional guidelines based on recommendations from the duly esteemed Institute of Medicine.  The updated guidelines include limits on salt, fat, and calories and require that fruit and vegetables be included.  (See Marion Nestle’s blog for concise coverage on this.)

So far, so good: public health is terrible, our kids are at increasing risk of developing diagnoses of preventable chronic disease (a lifetime sentence for lower quality of life and higher healthcare costs), and eating better supports better health.  Feeding our nation’s children better at school makes a world of sense.  Not only are we shoring up their physical health, we’re shoring up their mental health and happiness by feeding them more fruits and vegetables.

So far, NOT good: from coast to coast and even more so online, students are in an uproar, boycotting lunch, having faint-ins, throwing out the baby carrots and apples, and buying junk food from the vending machines. (See this New York Times coverage for details.)  One school district in Florida is even considering putting webcams in the trashcans to determine what foods are being rejected and to make a case for rescinding the regulations.

What’s the problem?  There are a number of them and here are two I see:

1. Who among you, if given the choice, would opt to eat in a school cafeteria?  Is this the place we expect to find good-tasting anything?   

With rare exceptions, modern-day school cafeterias have been designed for mixing up and heating up highly processed foods, not for cooking from raw ingredients. Their staff, hard-working and dedicated as they are, are mostly mixer-uppers and re-heaters, not chefs trained in sourcing quality raw foods and creating simple but delicious meals.

If we’re serious about converting children’s palates to whole foods and particularly to produce, we have to offer the very best quality, the most delicious preparation, the most appealing presentation, and we have to start when they’re toddlers.  Heck, we have to start when they’re in utero, because what their mothers eat when pregnant and breastfeeding has a big effect on their taste buds. 

So we need to be designing programs and regulations that support maternal and toddler health and nutrition too---if we wait until kids are in school to influence diet patterns, we are too late.  

2. Who among you believes that the extra 10¢ being charged for these nutritionally superior lunches remotely covers the actual cost of better (and better tasting, and better prepared) food? 

As I like to say wherever I go, not only does America spend more on healthcare than any other country in the world, Americans spend less on food (as a percent of income) than any other population in the world.  This is not a good thing: our expectation that food should be cheap reflects our lack of understanding about the value of food to our health and quality of life and the impact cheap food has on our healthcare spending and the health of our economy.

We have to commit to spending real money on better food if we are going to achieve better health and effective regulatory reform: health-related productivity costs and medical costs are crippling our economy and poor health is crippling our bodies and undermining our creativity, and our productivity.

As is so often the case, well-intentioned efforts result in unintended and unfortunate consequences.  For now, the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act seems to be contributing to resistance, cynicism, and waste rather than to better eating and better health, but in time, with more money and better design, this might change.  Let’s hope so.

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