For the first time in decades, a healthy school-lunch debate opens
First it was the 2008 (nee 2007) Farm Bill. Then it was Obama’s choices for the top USDA posts. Now it’s the National School Lunch Program.
Food issues once lived at the margins of U.S. political discourse, where agribusiness and food-industry interests could control them. Now they’re inching toward the center. A new era has dawned: U.S. politicians can no longer grin, take the cash, and do the bidding of agribiz while mouthing platitudes about farmers as the “backbone of our country” and school lunches as “critical to our nation’s most important resource, our children.”
The latest manifestation of the new age: a group of young, highly specialized DC-area policy writers — the kind of folks who usually drill down into the details of, say, healthcare legislation — have launched a fun and increasingly famous food blog called The Internet Food Association. In it, they share cooking experiences, obsess about a cooking show, and dabble in food-policy analysis.
As Congress gears up to reauthorize the Chid Nutrition and WIC Act, which encompasses the School Lunch program, several of them have trained their analytical skills on the school-lunch debate. When I take them to task below the fold, it’s very much in the spirit of, welcome aboard!
What set the IFAers on their school-lunch tangent was a recent Op-ed by Alice Waters in the New York Times, calling for a tripling of federal expenditures devoted to food. In Waters’ proposal, the federal government would begin paying $5 per lunch per day, a significant increase over current levels. (I wrote about it here).
Uber-blogger Ezra Klein started things off. He expressed skepticism that a more robust school-lunch program would deliver many knock-on benefits, like giving future adults healthier eating habits; but he supported the Waters proposal anyway.
There are things we should do because they should be done. We’re the richest nation in the world. We can do better than feeding our children inventively presented corn syrup fresh from the microwave.
Fellow blogger Tom Lee protested. Yes, we need to feed kids healthier food, but Waters’ proposal is way too extravagant, he contends. For one, there’s no compelling reason to move away from the model of preparing meals in vast canteens, to be distributed for reheating to the schools. Here’s the nut:
There’s really no good reason to dismiss frozen foods or centralized production. I understand that Waters isn’t a fan of those things; that’s understandable given her credentials and background. But the goal here is to wind up with healthier kids, not to train itty bitty aesthetes. I like eating sophisticated food, too, but it’s a luxury good — and one that would be wasted on most kids, anyway. There’s simply no compelling case for favoring a casserole or soup produced on-site in a school over a frozen one if they’re both using the same recipe and same quality of ingredients. Yes, factory-produced food is frequently unhealthy. But the idea that there’s some inherent health disadvantage to food produced through economies of scale is just a lazy heuristic.
Nor does he care much for Waters’ emphasis on local and organic ingredients, which he dismisses as “foodie pretension.” “[D]icking around with that nonsense while middle schoolers are contracting diabetes,” he opines,” is frankly inexcusable.” IFAer Sara Mead weighed in to support Lee.
Lee’s critique has proven compelling. The food savant Mark Bittman highlighted it on his NYT blog, calling it “the core of the real argument about the future of food in the United States.”
Really? I hope not. I like the IFA blog, but I feel as though their policy discussions often suffer from the technocrat’s disease: too narrow by half. You define a problem (unhealthy school lunches) and prescribe a cure (say, less high-fructose corn syrup in the pre-fab lasagna).
Lee’s critique is spot on, if you believe that our food system just needs a tweak or three to get on a healthy track. Let them eat pre-fab lasagna — say, with a bit more industrial-grown spinach, and a bit less industrial-grown meat and processed sweeteners. As for “sophisticated food,” that’s a luxury good for those of us who can appreciate — and afford — it. (Who’s being elitist, again?)
I fear that Lee has lapsed here into what Michael Pollan has called “nutritionism” — the idea that human nourishment can be broken down into discrete elements, which can effectively be manipulated for good or ill by the food industry.
The case for Waters’ approach requires a broader critique. The food system has lapsed into near self-parody — a steady stream of public-health disasters (from long-term maladies like diabetes to immediate complaints like salmonella), an exploited workforce (from enslaved Florida tomato pickers to scraping-by Wal-Mart clerks), and ecological damage writ large. And incentives remain in place to keep the beast lurching along. Over the past year, McDonald’s shares have outperformed the overall Dow by more than 40 percentage points. In hard times, cheap food becomes a hot commodity.
While Lee proffers a solution to the school-lunch dilemma that targets (effectively or not) nutrition, Waters offers a robust model that offers synergies in many directions. Lee would preserve the model of cafeteria workers as deskilled clerks with a specialty in reheating; Waters’ way would require trained cooks — who could then pass their skills onto students.
Lee’s model would continue to funnel federal cash into a globalized food system that relies on cheap labor and mined and synthesized inputs, many of them highly toxic and greenhouse-gas-intensive (see oxide, nitrous). Waters wants federal cash to bolster the foodsheds that surround schools, incentivizing (that one’s for you, wonks) ecological-minded farming.
Lee’s model sees food as an educational input, a way to boost academic performance. It’s the food-as-energy-and-nothing-more model that has dominated U.S. food culture for decades. Waters sees food as a resource and opportunity — a way to teach kids about ecology, biology, chemistry, and gastronomy in a visceral way.
Is her vision too expensive? First response: why do people suddenly become fiscal conservatives when discussing a key leverage point like school lunches, while more or less blithely accepting that the government spends $5 billion a month on futile foreign adventures, or hands out sweetheart deals to failed but well-connected banks?
Further, we can be creative to hold costs down. As I wrote in a recent column called “Eat the Stimulus” — which may have been painted with too broad a brush to engage the wonk set — I suggested this:
Let’s use the stimulus package as the occasion for a new, major investment in school kitchens. And to help staff the newly outfitted kitchens and teach the clerks to cook, the government should launch a Teach for America-style program to lure in newly minted cooking school graduates. (After all, new chefs may have trouble finding work at fancy restaurants over the next few years.)
Hey, I read somewhere on the IFA blog that 10 percent of chef’s school grads default on their loans — a number that will surely rise as the economy sours. A Cook for America’s Children deal might just be the way forward.
Finally, the French pay up for school lunches — $8 a pop, last I checked — and their economy is certainly doing no worse than ours; and their health metrics are better. In Paris, they’ve got chefs cooking at daycare centers!
Having said all that, I heartily welcome the IFA crew into the food policy debate. I’m ecstatic that we’re having such a debate at all — and their analytical rigor can only raise the overall level.