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Make School Lunch Great Again? By What Measure? By Whose Standards?

September 6, 2017

Those who value public education have so many fronts to push back against might overlook one area where push back is crucial: the school lunch programs. And, Kim Severenson’s article in yesterday’s NYTimes indicates, school lunch is as divisive an issue as vouchers! Why? Because one of President Obama’s admirable efforts was an insistence that school lunches offer healthy and nutritious meals for children even if that meant introducing them to fruits and vegetables instead of french fries and pizza. Here’s an excerpt from the article on a speech Secretary of Education Sonny Perdue gave to the annual conference of the School Nutrition Association:

After reminiscing about the cinnamon rolls baked by the lunchroom ladies of his youth, he delivered a rousing defense of school food-service workers who were unhappy with some of the sweeping changes made by the Obama administration. The amounts of fat, sugar and salt were drastically reduced. Portion sizes shrank. Lunch trays had to hold more fruits and vegetables. Snacks and food sold for fund-raising had to be healthier.

“Your dedication and creativity was being stifled,” Mr. Perdue said. “You were forced to focus your attention on strict, inflexible rules handed down from Washington. Even worse, you experienced firsthand that the rules were failing.”

Mr. Perdue then outlined how his department was loosening some of those rules. He finished with a folksy story about a child who asked whether Mr. Perdue could make school lunches great again.

Some in the audience cheered. Some walked out. School food was not going to escape the sharp political divisions that began to simmer in the Obama years and have been laid bare by the election of President Trump.

The debate on food in schools may ultimately be a local one, but the regulations governing the content of free and reduced lunches will dictate the parameters of the debate in a majority of districts across the country, even those where a relatively small percentage of students qualify for free and reduced meals. Having led five different school districts in four different states, I have witnessed several debates at the district and school level. The board deliberations are over three broad issues:

  • Budgets: School boards tend to agree on one issue: as much as possible school lunch programs should be self sufficient. Invariably, self sufficiency is elusive for two reasons: the government subsidies do not cover the costs of the meals and some parents fail to pay for either reduced price or full price meals their children receive. School boards are then forced to debate policies on how to collect these funds, how much they are willing to divert from the operating budget to cover cost overruns, which leads to the second and third areas of debate.
  • A la carte menus: Boards can increase their revenues by offering an array of unhealthy a la carte items, like the “cinnamon rolls baked by the lunchroom ladies“, cookies, fat-laden menu items like french fries and cheeseburgers, and snack foods. These items can be sold at a price that yields a “profit” that can offset the deficits that result from limited government funding and shortfalls due to parents failing to pay their share. This frames the third debate issue.
  • Out-sourcing: There are many private for-profit firms that can operate a school lunch program at a limited or no-cost basis to school district. These firms often do so by supplanting union employees with lower wage workers and buying government approved foodstuffs through large conglomerates at a deeply discounted price. While such operations are more impersonal and offer meals that are arguably less tasty, they do meet the government meal standards and do guarantee a fixed cost or savings to the local school district.

Over the past several years school boards have also become arbiters of issues like whether schools can serve cupcakes for a child’s birthday, whether vending machines offering snacks and sugar-laden soft drinks can be placed in schools, and what kinds of foods and beverages booster clubs and PTAs can sell before, during, and after school hours. Some boards take a complete laissez-faire attitude while others develop detailed policies on the issue.

Ms. Severnson’s article underscores the reality that even though the federal government sets guidelines for meals, what children eat each day is ultimately a local school board’s call… and districts across the nation realize that the meals they provide need to be as nutritious as possible. She writes:

So far, one thing is clear: School-food leaders on both sides of the political spectrum — most of whom are trying to avoid politics altogether — say the Trump administration’s efforts are unlikely to affect what they agree is a powerful and well-established movement to improve school lunches. Since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act took effect in 2010, most of the key players have bought in: food producers, schools and even the children.

That’s why, in part, Mr. Perdue’s comments about local control resonated the loudest: Many districts are already improving school meals without federal intervention.

“All the conversations about school meals have been unnecessarily polarized,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, an advocacy organization that represents 57,000 school-food professionals and counts many of the country’s largest food companies among its supporters. “People in every district are really dedicated to making sure kids are getting the healthiest food possible.”

The NYTimes article offers some detailed insights into the lunch program, and concludes with this paragraph:

The Trump administration has also called for a 21 percent cut to the Department of Agriculture budget, which could severely curtail school food funding and individual programs that pay for new kitchen equipment and fresh, local fruit and vegetables.

Those who support Mr. Trump will undoubtedly be happy that he is offering fewer regulations and more local control. Will their local school boards be happy to absorb a 21% increase in lunch costs? Will they pass the costs along to children by increasing the costs for lunches by asked to pay 21%? Or will they offset the higher costs by offering more “tasty” a la carte meals and snacks or by outsourcing? The downshifting of funding will lead to a downshifting in decision making and, ultimately, a greater disparity in the meals provided for children. That is the fruit of deregulation.

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